Gun Violence and Mental Illness: A Contested Space and a Reversed Regulation

Print Share on LinkedIn More

February 3, 2017; National Public Radio

Last week, House Republicans voted to overturn an Obama-era regulation designed to keep mentally ill people from obtaining guns.

“The Obama administration’s last-minute, back-door gun grab would have stripped law-abiding Americans of their Second Amendment rights without due process,” said Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist.

The law was, in fact, neither last-minute nor back-door; it went through the standard 62-day comment period, during which it received nearly 100,000 comments from the public.

Neither is it a gun grab. The rule applies to anyone who files for disability benefits and whose mental impairments meet or equal those laid out in Section 12 of the Listing of Impairments. If a person does meets the criteria, the fact of their qualification is sent to the Attorney General and the FBI, to become part of their background check. The Social Security Administration does not take any guns, and anyone deemed ineligible to purchase a gun based on this evaluation has the opportunity to appeal the decision.

Now, the idea that mentally ill people should not have guns might not seem like a hard case to argue, but the NRA has managed to come down on both sides. In 2012, they said that shooters were “so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can even possibly comprehend them.” In 2017, however, the NRA and their Republican allies became the underdogs’ champions, defending their Second Amendment rights.

“This is a slap in the face for those in the disabled community because it paints all those who suffer from mental disorders with the same broad brush,” said Republican House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte.

This is a fair point: Section 12 of the impairments listing includes things like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but it also includes eating disorders and other conditions less likely to impede judgment. Additionally, it’s important to realize that helping, rather than demonizing, people suffering from mental illness should be the goal; referring to them as “possessed by voices” is a way to classify them as “other,” when in fact 20% of Americans suffer from mental illness. But recognizing the individual humanity of people with mental illness can be accomplished without allowing unfettered access to guns.

NPR reported that “The National Rifle Association had pushed for the repeal, [of the regulation] and Republicans argued it infringed upon Second Amendment rights by denying due process.”

The ability of mentally ill people to obtain guns has hitherto been regulated state-by-state, or not at all. The conviction that shooters are deranged and ill took cultural hold as Republicans started using it to deflect tough questions about gun control legislation, even though Gallup says that more than 55 percent of Americans support gun control legislation.

But while preventing the mentally ill from obtaining firearms is a reasonable idea on its face, statistics show that it doesn’t do much for the gun violence rate. Less than 10 percent of shootings involve people with mental illness. In fact, mental health turns out to be a bit of a red herring to distract from the real common thread among mass shootings.

That main connection between shooters isn’t a group of who are “prone” to mass shootings; there’s no such thing as a group that’s “prone.” The main threat is the lack of regulation for powerful guns. Regulations on automatic weapons and restrictions on concealed carry have been falling in Wisconsin, Florida, and other states over the past year. Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos was quoted as saying she would allow guns in schools to protect children from grizzlies.

New York Times commentator Richard Friedman said,

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

The red herring of mental illness covers up the real problem with gun control, which is the prevalence of assault weapons and the shrinking safety precautions we insist upon as a country before obtaining one. Statistics show that over 80 percent of shootings are committed with legally acquired guns.

Allies and organizations gearing up to fight should focus on the real factors that lead to increased gun violence. In the meantime, this seems like an unwise law to repeal.— Erin Rubin