Mental illness and gun control laws.

Hooray!  Here’s one of those potentially drama-inducing posts that sucks to write!  Wheeeeeeee!

A lot of people who are pro-gun post anecdotes of folks who have successfully defended themselves or foiled a robbery with a gun. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun in the home is 11 times more likely to be used in a completed or attempted suicide, seven times more likely to be used in a criminal assault or homicide and four times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting death or injury than to be used in a self-defense shooting.

I’m all for guns in the home, but I sure wish that we as a nation could come up with some way to get a little balance between 22 bad outcomes for every one good outcome, and I wish the folks who are always posting anecdotes about the one good outcome cared a bit more about finding a way to decrease the 22 bad outcomes.  That needs to be huge part of the gun control conversation: not only lessening the number of mass shootings, but also in keeping events like these to a minimum.  That is what this post is about.

Kate Donnovan wrote a good piece about not blaming mental illness for Adam Lanza’s massacre.  I agree with most of it.  And let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: all but a handful of the most piss ignorant Americans believes in gun control.  All of them.  If you think convicted murderers shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun, or that someone shouldn’t be allowed to waltz onto an airplane with an M16 and a bag of hand grenades, then you believe in gun control.  Beyond that, it’s just matter of determining what level of control makes for the best society.  Right now, gun control laws are too lax.  We need some new ones, and that’s what I want to talk about.  (Ashley Miller has some good suggestions already)

One place I think the gun nuts have it right is that we need to seriously treat mental illness in this country, and we’re doing a shitty job of it.  The problem is that the gun nuts are using mental illness as a scapegoat, suggesting that mental illness (and video games, and anything our gun laws being far too loose) are to blame for mass killings.  The tone is one of blame, not of compassion.  It’s disingenuous and it pisses me off.  By placing the majority (if not the entirety) of the blame on mental illness, as a distraction away from addressing guns, they do little to impress me with their concern for the mentally afflicted.  They do much more to demonstrate how they’re willing to use people who already got dealt some shitty cards in life.  This contributes to the stigma on mental illness, rather than diminishing it.

However, a problem does exist: how do we manage the right to bear arms as applied to a society that has mentally ill people in it?

You all know I’m mentally ill.  As a mentally ill person who despises the stigma on mental illness, I will say that I should not be allowed to purchase, or to own, a gun.  Would I be safe with a gun?  Right now, yes.  On almost every day, yes.  Hell, potentially for the rest of my life, yes.  But I’m aware that I’m prone to downturns (that are, thankfully, now very rare) during which I could potentially be a suicide risk.  It’s just part of having my brain.  It’s not a matter of having a waiting period for me to cool off (I love waiting period laws!  They do reduce the number of gun suicides).  It’s a matter of not having a firearm around when I hit a downturn.  There are many people in this country in the same boat as I.

I hated writing the previous paragraph because it sounds like I’m advocating ableism.  Please understand that I’m as interested in promoting discrimination against the mentally ill as I am about promoting higher taxes on professional writers.  But for the same reason we have certain standards for giving driver’s licenses to seizure patients, we need a specific set of standards for deciding when it is, or is not safe to allow a mentally ill person to own a gun.  As a comparison, I don’t think there is anything shameful about having seizures, just like I don’t think there is a single thing to be ashamed of when it comes to having a mental illness.  People don’t choose to be sick.  But just because I don’t think there’s anything shameful about illnesses doesn’t mean we don’t need to deal with the reality of them.  And the reality is that, even if medicated and treated, a seizure patient will have a seizure every year or two on average, I’d be reticent to let them get behind the wheel of the car all the days they were well.  Likewise, if a person has a mental illness that crops up, even rarely, that makes them a higher risk to self-harm or to harm others, I’d be averse to giving them a license to own a gun.

That is not to say that not all seizure patients should be barred from driving.  Some have been cured, as confirmed by their doctor.  Others have seizures only while sleeping.  But for those who are presently a risk, laws exist to protect the patient and those around them.  That’s very much how I view mental illness and guns.  Some people have been diagnosed as fully recovered and they should be good to go.  Other mental illnesses have nothing to do with self-harm or violence.  I’m just talking about the conditions, like mine, that would make ownership of a gun, even one day out of two years, a bad idea.

The most prominent proposal to address this issue has been a national registry of mentally ill people that gets checked whenever someone tries to buy a gun.  There’s a lot of wigging out about that idea, saying it would give the government too much power.  This is silly.  A national database of medical records already exists per the Affordable Health Care Act.  It’s not like we’d be creating anything new.

The argument I think is not silly is that there is a lot of shame that could potentially come with such a program.  While I have become secure with my mental illness, and would have no problem if someone picked up a phone and heard “Mr. Eberhard has a suicide attempt, is diagnosed with depression with occasional hallucinations, and is a recovering anorexic”, I know that most people with mental illness are not that way.  For those who wish to remain closeted with their condition, they should be allowed to do so.  Also, with the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, not every small-town arms dealer with a big mouth needs to know about their neighbor’s mental illness.

But here is what I propose: a national database of those who are, or are not, eligible to own a firearm for whatever reason.  And, when checked, returns either a simple “yes” or “no”.  There are flaws, of course.  Confidentiality laws are good, but not perfect, and the most obvious problem is that, when gun merchants violate confidentiality laws, speculation can be worse than details.  If a “no” comes back, a person may still have to deal with whispers in their community of “are they a murderer or depressed?” which would conceivably put mental illness in the same conversation as felony.  I realize that there are problems, but I think an anonymous database of this sort is a much smaller problem than the ones we presently face.  I am open to a perfect solution should one ever be presented to me.  Until then, I think we must do the best we can.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with mental illness.  Obviously.  But I am saying that mental illness does exist and must be incorporated into our strategy for reducing harm caused by guns.  I also despise the people trying to use mental illness as a shield for stupidly loose gun control laws.  However, mental illness needs to be part of the gun control argument.  It should not be the entire conversation, and I think the treatment of mental illness needs to be a bigger part of the conversation than which mental health patients should be allowed access to guns.  But it needs to be there, and it needs to be informed by psychiatrists and mental health experts.  Mentally ill people also need to be in the conversation, lest it be entirely the property of people who have never experienced what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and who may unwittingly have incorporated the stigma on mental illness into their opinions, as the people opposing any and all regulations on guns (like the NRA) are surely hoping in their never-ending quest to pass the buck.

Potential arguments to the contrary:

1.  Keeping a mentally ill person from owning a gun won’t stop them from doing what Adam Lanza did: taking the gun from someone who does legally own it in order to self-harm or to harm others.

Yup, the proposal of above won’t stop all suicides, just like waiting period laws don’t stop all them.  But they lessen them.  Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.  Besides, if you own a gun, then it is your responsibility to keep it out of the hands of others, either by keeping your gun on your person or under lock and key.  I don’t see anybody saying that seizure patients may drive cars illegally, so therefore we should just give them licenses at the same rate with give non-seizure patients.

I’ll add others as I think of them or as they’re presented.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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