News reports about mass shootings have become part of our lives ever since Columbine in 1999.
And the reaction to these shootings has divided our nation. Many of us look to gun control. We believe that military weapons were designed to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time, and don’t they belong in the hands of civilians. Others claim that these weapons of max destruction aren’t the problem. Instead they suggest that these massacres are the result of bad people or bad circumstances, or…whatever. In the last several years they have settled on a scapegoat: people who struggle with mental illness.
One some level I understand their choice: while we’ve found success in treatments for our kidneys, hearts, and pancreases we had a much harder time with brain disease. Gun control opponents have seized on this opportunity to claim that we should continue to allow military grade rifles for all those except who are mentally ill. After the shootings the President said this: “[W]e must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence, and make sure those people not only get treatment, but when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”
So here’s the problem: nobody knows what level of mental illness should block someone from buying or owning a gun. Simply put, opponents of gun control point to a problem with no solution and celebrate the appearance of concern.
If we’re not good at treating mental illness, we’re even worse at diagnosing it. The idea that we can predict the next mass shooters while treating those who suffer but aren’t a threat is, frankly put, a myth. People who live with (among others) depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia normally do more damage to themselves or their immediate circle of family and friends than they do to large numbers of strangers.
And even if you don’t buy my argument that we can’t predict these mass shootings, I’ll also argue that this will make it harder to provide treatment to those who suffer from mental illness.
How do we classify mental illness? We already have a “cannot purchase” list, but these are primarily those who have felony convictions, are on terrorist watch lists, or have been convicted of domestic violence.
But the term “mental illness” is much more fluid. Do we include only those who have been involuntarily institutionalized? What about those who have been voluntarily institutionalized? What about those currently in the care of a psychiatrist? Or those formerly in the care of a psychiatrist? What about those currently in the care of a psychologist? Or those formerly in the care of a psychologist?
Do we include those who participated in a depression support group? How about those who participated in a grief support group?
Many who suffer refuse to ask for help because of a well founded belief that they will be unfairly labeled as weak or crazy and will put themselves at risk of discrimination. Now imagine a troubled teenager who comes from a family who hunts. He knows that if he asks for help he may well be put on a database that prevents him from purchasing a gun.
We already have reasons for people to fear mental health treatment, we don’t need to create another.