Let’s Take Guns from Crazy People


crazy people and guns

Gun Wall (Photo credit: Mike Saechang)

Whoa, Nelly.

I'm no foe to moderate, reasonable limits on gun ownership... but I swear if I read one more comment about how if 'crazy people' couldn't get guns, we wouldn't need any other measures.. I will, uh, write a blog post about how many ways that statement is wrong.

Who are the Crazy People?

Let's start with the basics. Define 'crazy people'. Are you talking about someone who has persistent, delusional thoughts that he will become the Joker if he shoots a theater full of people, or are you talking about someone who picks up her antidepressant from her psychiatrist and sees her therapist once a month because of persistent feelings of hopelessness and helplessness?

Are you talking about someone who is hospitalized every month or so for making delusional threats, or someone who has nightmares every night about the things he saw in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Are you talking about yourself, your relative, your neighbor, or some fictional boogieman of your imagination?

Are Crazy People Dangerous?

Crazy People?

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The umbrella of 'mental illness' is a very large umbrella. One in four adults in the United States has been diagnosed with a mental disorder. One in twenty has been diagnosed with a 'severe and persistent' mental illness.

Let's say we limit the definition of 'crazy people' to people with 'severe and persistent mental illnesses'. We're still talking about limiting the rights of a huge swath of people without any evidence that they are more dangerous than other people.

The same is true if we limit it to people who have suffered delusions and hallucinations. Still no evidence that these 'crazy people' are more dangerous than Joe and Joanne Average. Here's the bottom line: There is no empirical evidence that people with mental illness are more dangerous than people who have not been diagnosed when sociological factors are controlled for.

If you want to limit your restrictions to people with mental illness who have made specific threats to harm other people, fine. Now you are talking about a subset of people who have an elevated threat of harm to others. It also has the advantage of addressing an action a person has actually made vs. an assumption about future actions. However, that doesn't address all the people without mental illness who make specific threats to harm other people.

We are awfully eager to take away the rights of people with mental illness. In some of the same comment threads (over at Mother Jones, mostly, which has been invaded by trolls), people with mental illness are equated with 'murderers and rapists', and the commenter suggests they should 'all be locked up'.

Ahem. A murderer or rapist has committed an act of violence. They have broken a law. A person with mental illness has a problem with brain chemistry that can be treated and in most cases can live a happy, productive life.

It is sometimes true that the set of 'people with mental illnesses' and 'people who commit murders' have members in common. It is also true that the set of 'people with blue eyes' and 'people who commit murders' have members in common. Do we advocate for blue eyed people to be pre-emptively stripped of their rights?

Who Should Not Own Guns?

If you want to ban gun ownership to a subset of people who are more likely to use guns in crimes, the current restrictions on felons is a good one. Another one that might be good is to restrict gun ownership in people who have been diagnosed with active substance abuse or dependence, particularly of alcohol, amphetamines, or cocaine, although this is not without its own problems.

Both the idea of keeping 'crazy people' and people with substance abuse disorders from owning or using guns have the advantage of tackling the problem from a public health perspective, but only one of those ideas has the advantage of having any sort of science behind it. And both ideas have the distinct disadvantage of taking away a right that other citizens have based on an assumption of future acts rather than based on an individual's actions.

And when you dig deeper, what unintended consequences would come from a blanket gun ban on either of these populations? How many people who desperately need mental health or addictions treatment would refuse it simply because they don't want to lose their guns? It is hard enough already to get people into treatment who need it. Lets not make it more difficult.

The current discussion about keeping mentally ill people from gun ownership is yet another in a long line of public discussions that marginalize people with illnesses and reinforce stereotypes without evidence. The vast majority of Americans get their ideas about mental illness from television shows like CSI and Law and Order, rather than from current research.

It should be difficult to single out a population in a democratic country and deprive them of rights guaranteed to other citizens. We can argue about whether the second amendment actual guarantees personal gun use, but if we accept that it does, the bar to exclude a group needs to be very high and based on scientific evidence and the rule of law.

Do I think there are reasonable steps that government can take that can reduce gun violence (and violence in general) in the United States? Yes I do.

Do I think that forbidding all people who have mental health diagnoses from owning firearms is either effective or ethical? No, I do not.

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About odanu

Maureen O'Danu is the webmistress of Am I the Only One Dancing? where there is a new discussion every day on any one of dozens of topics and ideas, as well as reviews, geekery, family, fun, and enough politics to season the pot.
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