Terrifying numbers of shootings in recent months have spurred talks about gun control in relation to mental illness. Many politicians are pointing to mental illness as a leading cause of gun violence. While it’s true that more energy and resources need to be put into our broken mental health system, mental health laws spurred by instances of gun violence will lead to laws that hurt, not help, the issues we have with mental illness.
Focusing discussion purely on how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill isn’t productive—discussion needs to be directed at true understanding of mental health issues in our country and on having widespread gun control that covers everyone– not only the mentally ill. Rigorous background checks would keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of anyone with demonstrated violent tendencies, which would help security issues without ostracizing the mentally ill.
It’s easy for politicians to point to mental illness as a primary cause of gun violence. It allows politicians to address gun violence issues while not angering the NRA, which is shockingly powerful in Washington. In 2012 alone, the NRA spent $32 million on political expenditures.
It is evident that the NRA is trying to shift the frame of gun control discussions away from bans on particularly deadly weapons and toward issues of mental illness. In response to the Newtown massacre, the NRA cited mental illness as the cause of recent mass-killings. The group called for a national registry of people with mental illness, which could arguably be an invasion of privacy. Creating a registry can also create the sense that people with mental illness are dangerous, which promotes stereotypes attached to mental illness.
By leading the gun control discussion toward the issue of mental health and away from things like an assault weapon ban, our political leaders are further attaching stigmas to those with mental illnesses. In reality, numerous studies from the Institute of Medicine, the American Psychiatric Association, and others, have shown that most people who commit violent acts are not mentally ill, the mentally ill do not contribute much to the rate of violence, and that the mentally ill are actually much more likely to be victims of crime rather than perpetrators of crime. People with significant mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are actually 2 and a half times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than those without mental illness. While some people with mental illness do tend to be more violent than others, stigmatizing the entire mentally ill population is inaccurate and unproductive. Focusing on broad-scale background checks before gun purchases would help to prevent violent people from owning guns in general without furthering stereotypes against the mentally ill. The mentally ill are more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator, yet common perception is just the opposite.
The general public associates mental illness and violent activity much more than is actually the case, leading to a sense of shame among those who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, which can be a factor in these people not seeking professional help. Severe stigmas against the mentally ill lead American people focusing not on helping these people with their issues, but instead on scapegoating them for issues plaguing American society.
The real focus of these discussions needs to be centered on several different things: real gun control, starting with a ban on assault weapons, improved background checks before gun purchases, increased funding for mental health services, and education of the general public on mental health issues.
The exaggerated association of the mentally ill and violent acts should lead to nationwide discussion regarding the stigmas currently attached to mental health issues. At this point in time, the American people are seeing the “Us and Them” mindset towards the mentally ill that has led to the mentally ill being looked upon with fear and shame, and our mental health system to be hopelessly underfunded. Productive discussion is not happening regarding these two issues. Allowing politicians to perpetuate stigmas towards mental health issues is leading to ineffective gun policy and a fractured, failing, mental health system. America needs to shift the frame of this discussion, or it’ll continue down this horrendous path of gun slaughters.
Class of 2014 at Concordia College. Majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. Involved in Student Government and, of course, The Concordian.