What Is the Relationship Between Gun Ownership and Mental Health?

Our new series 'Maybe I'm Wrong' wants to spur meaningful conversation around the gun debate.

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Sep 6 2018, 7:57pm

In the weeks following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this year, something remarkable happened. Florida lawmakers delivered a bill to Governor Rick Scott that raised the age of firearm purchase to 21, facilitated arming educators , and increased funding for mental health services. The bill, “The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act,” was signed into law, signaling a rare occasion where an episode of horrific gun violence resulted in direct and relatively speedy legislative action.

Even more remarkable was that it happened in Florida, a state that has been the crucible for so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws and other policies that embody the NRA’s vision of gun culture in the US. In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, the March for Our Lives movement that arose from it has given the gun debate a new significance, precisely because it shows that the voices of young people can result in direct political change.

The gun debate is one that is incredibly complex and too often it is cast in black and white when in reality the political interests and opinions that drive the discussion tend to land in the gray. So over the next two weeks, I’ll be posting video thought starters that outline my stances on certain elements of the gun debate. I don’t believe I’m 100 percent right about anything, and I’m curious to see what you guys think might be flawed or biased or straight up wrong with my POV.

Then later this month, I’ll be hosting a live discussion between advocates on both sides of this issue to continue the work of elevating young people’s voices and forcing elected officials to pay attention.

Our first thought starter explores mental health and gun ownership.

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When reports surfaced that David Katz—the 24-year-old who opened fire during a video game competition in Jacksonville, Florida on August 25, 2018—had a history of mental illness, it gave credence to the widely held opinion that people with mental illnesses should be barred from gun ownership because they are more prone to violence. Not only is this opinion widely accepted, it’s written into US federal law that anyone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution” is not able to legally buy a gun. But organizations like the ACLU have argued that blanket limitations like this are a potential civil rights violation. So, should we make background checks for firearms purchases more stringent to include people who, like Katz, took psychiatric medication and had numerous police interventions at his home?

Here’s my take: mental health is a false flag. It seems like a common sense solution to gun control, but it won’t do much to decrease gun deaths across the country. And might even do more harm than good.

Here’s why. Shootings by people with serious mental illness account for fewer than one percent of gun related homicides nationwide. Furthermore, many mental health organizations—and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—agree that people with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. This is a crucial distinction. It is wrong to believe that people facing mental health challenges are a danger to our society’s safety. It’s a stigma and might deter people in need from seeking help for fear of being labeled.

So what are we to do with this conundrum? Our common sense instincts tell us one thing: that mass shooters must be crazy and we should identify people who are exhibiting signs of mental illness to stop them from hurting us in the future. But population-level data tells another: Treating people who are ill as a threat mischaracterizes their illnesses and could mean more unaddressed mental illness overall. Perhaps we should also look closely at why we search for an explanation after a mass shooting.

In the wake of tragedy, there’s a need to find rationale, a cause, and a history of mental illness is a compelling origin story for a villain. But in that storytelling the complexity of someone’s history with mental illness can be simplified into the single causal factor for their unspeakable action. We are unwittingly scapegoating mental illness rather than examining broader societal problems that could also be at the root of gun violence in the US, like a crisis in masculinity or the entrenched interests of the gun lobby. We are letting ourselves—and our leaders—off the hook.

I would further argue that the focus on mental illness hides the ball on more effective ideas for gun safety. For instance: If you were to take guns away from anyone who’s lost parental rights as a result of domestic abuse, it could have a far greater effect on reducing gun violence.

There are certainly valid concerns around mental health and gun ownership. People suffering from what clinicians describe as “severe and persistent mental illness” that includes suicidal ideation should potentially be barred from purchasing firearms since suicide accounts for around 60 percent of all gun-related deaths. But given how many guns are already in circulation, barring purchase isn’t necessarily going to stem that tide either.

Maybe I’m wrong, but the more we simplify the connection between mental health and gun violence, especially after a high profile mass shooting, the more we miss the opportunity to come to intelligent consensus on how to save lives.

Follow Krishna Andavolu on Twitter.

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