Addressing gun violence the wrong way

Eli Horowitz

Of the recent debates about reducing gun violence in the wake the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., no measure has received more universal support than stricter controls for the purchase of weapons by the mentally ill, particularly through the creation of a national mental health registry. It’s pretty hard to argue against. After all, these mass shootings are all committed by crazy people anyway. Why give the insane guns?

It turns out the issue is a lot more complicated than that. The creation of a national mental health registry is not only unnecessary, it creates a vast potential for privacy violations and puts undue burden on the mentally ill. People suffering from mental illness are one of the most fundamentally misunderstood groups in our society. That is why defining our terms, before even beginning a debate on the mentally ill and their access to guns, is so critical. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines mental illness as “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” These people are not crazy. These people are not more prone to violence. In a given year, approximately a quarter of all Americans suffer from mental illness, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. Some common mental health disorders include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The American media has promoted images of mental illness that are patently untrue. People know that what they see on television isn’t necessarily accurate, but the image of the violent criminal suffering from mental illness has sunk in through sheer repetition. A longitudinal study by the Mental Health Module Team found that between 1950 and 1996, the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled. Since then, the media’s grossly fictional depictions of mental illness have only increased. Yet most studies have found little correlation between mental illness and violent crimes. One study in the American Journal of Psychology found that only five percent of violent crimes are committed by those suffering from mental illness. By comparison, another study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that in a participant pool with no documented mental illness, subjects who drank alcohol were seven times more likely to commit a violent crime with a gun than subjects who did not. Moreover, studies in which mental health experts attempted to predict which patients were most likely to exhibit violence in the future found that their predictions were essentially ineffective. The association between violence and mental illness is, in the eyes of the public, grossly exaggerated.

That’s really the heart of the issue. Opponents of comprehensive gun control see it as a perfect red herring. The mentally ill account for only a fraction of gun deaths. Yet despite the limited effects that would result from such a policy, people across the political spectrum seem willing to allow for the massive privacy violations that a national mental health registry would entail and the additional stigma it would bring upon the millions of people suffering from mental illness in this country.

Mass shootings, such as the one that occurred at Newtown, are popularly seen as stemming from mental illness. The media claimed just after the tragedy that Adam Lanza was reportedly awkward, then proceeded to claim that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. However, autism is not a mental illness. Most mass shooters in the past year have supposedly been mentally ill. These reports are generally of nonspecific mental illnesses unconfirmed by official diagnoses.

Mental illness in and of itself doesn’t cause mass shootings. Looking at the mass shooters’ stories, most were functioning relatively well until discrimination against them based on their mental illnesses left them feeling alienated and alone. The stigma against mental illness is what drives the mentally ill to such horrific extremes. Let’s not further the stigma against mental illness in this country by discriminating against those who suffer from it and pushing them toward the fringes of society. Let’s bring them closer to the heart of our society, fix our mental health system and deal with guns the right way: comprehensively and without relying on baseless stigmas.