A person in the act of firing a gun

Crazies, Guns, and Public Policy

2015 has been a grim year for the United States, with hundreds of gun violence incidents involving four or more victims, equating to more than one a day. This flood of horrors includes mass shootings (four or more victims, regardless of fatalities) and mass killings (four or more people shot and killed), and it accompanies the 1,100 and counting people shot by police in the US over the course of the year. Our collective crisis of violence is deeply disturbing, and so is the simplistic response: The instantaneous attribution of violence to mentally ill people, despite scientific evidence, and the pointed silence on mentally ill people shot by police.

For the mentally ill community, every single mass shooting results in a collective bracing against the tide of disablism that will result as the sane public insists that only crazies do this sort of thing, and that to stem the tide of gun violence, we need only make it impossible for mentally ill people to get guns. This rhetoric, complete with slurs, comes out of the mouths of presidential candidates. It crops up endlessly on social media. It appears in opinion editorials in major newspapers. It serves as a reminder that we are the dregs of society — that despite amply illustrating with statistics on mental illness and violence that we are not a threat, we will continue to be viewed as such.

When armchair diagnosis turns into actual diagnosis, the media and the public are smug in their vilification of mental illness: You see, they say, we were right, it turned out to be the action of a madman after all.

We aren’t helped when the media focuses on the rare instances of mass shootings conducted by people who are mentally ill. These stories linger over the lascivious details of these cases to scaremonger amongst the public, creating a setting in which mentally ill people are positioned as threatening and scary. We are the James Holmeses of the world, the Jared Lee Loughners, the Robert Louis Dears, to listen to the media. When armchair diagnosis turns into actual diagnosis, the media and the public are smug in their vilification of mental illness: You see, they say, we were right, it turned out to be the action of a madman after all.

This creates a sense of exceptionalism, suggesting that sane people are not capable of such horrendous acts, which is one reason they occur over, and over, and over again. When people refuse to admit that people like them can commit atrocities, they set themselves apart, refuse to explore their own culpability. Yet, even people who contemplated or planned mass shootings have been explicit about the fact that their decisions weren’t predicated upon mental illness, but humiliation and a desire to get back at society. Humiliation from bullying classmates. Humiliation from the mistaken belief that women are property, the root of misogynistic mass shootings like that committed by Elliot Rodger.

Of teens who killed three or more people in one event between 1958 and 1999, roughly one quarter had a history of mental health events — but very few were in a state of mental health crisis, and many had confounding factors. If a bullied and depressed person walks into school and shoots up the high school football team, is it because of her depression, or because of her unconscionable bullying?

By excluding themselves from the list of eligible mass shooters, 80 percent of society gets to behave as though it has no social and moral obligations. Other people do that — insane people — despite powerful evidence to the contrary. Most mass shootings occur in the context of domestic violence, involving people with no psychiatric history who do have a history of misogynistic violence. Many of these people were allowed to have guns despite having restraining orders and violent backgrounds — yet, politicians and the media want to focus on keeping guns out of mentally ill people. To admit that the bulk of mass shooting incidents in the US are rooted in misogyny, patriarchy, and domestic violence is to open up a conversation that people do not want to have, one in which we talk openly about the looming problem of violence against women.

Even if we control for the fact that there are fewer mentally ill than sane people in the United States, mentally ill people are less dangerous than their sane counterparts.

Mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, a line that may be familiar because it’s repeated over and over again, though it evidently hasn’t sunk in yet. Mentally ill people are ten times more likely to experience violence than sane people. In a 2003 study in World Psychiatry, researcher Heather Stuart found that:

Mental disorders are neither necessary nor sufficient causes of violence. Major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and economic factors. Substance abuse is a major determinant of violence and this is true whether it occurs in the context of a concurrent mental illness or not.

Her findings are affirmed by another study from earlier this year, in which researchers found that: ‘less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.’

In other words, even if we control for the fact that there are fewer mentally ill than sane people in the United States, mentally ill people are less dangerous than their sane counterparts. If anyone should be allowed to have guns, perhaps it’s mentally ill people, who pose a decidedly lower risk to the public. Yet, again, policymakers push the notion that people with a history of severe mental illness — like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — should be excluded from gun ownership in the United States on the grounds of preconceived notions about violence and mental illness. There is no discussion of the need for public policy that protects mentally ill people from violence, particularly in the instance of people who have been institutionalised or who are in a state of psychiatric crisis.

This issue is pressingly illustrated in the instance of police violence and mentally ill people. One quarter of the people shot by police in the US were known to have a history of mental health conditions, according to a database compiled by the Washington Postand the publication was quite conservative in its determinations, making the real number likely even higher. The decision to adjust down, rather than up, still shows that mentally ill people are being killed by police at disproportionate rates, as only 20 percent of the population is mentally ill, and less than five percent of the population has a severe mental illness — these people are those most likely to be targeted by police officers, as they’re often in a state of crisis that makes it hard for them to understand what’s happening in interactions with police.

There are profound intersections here between race and mental illness, with many of the victims of police violence in the United States being both people of color and mentally ill, and this cuts to deeper problems in American policy and culture. These Americans are more likely to experience stressors and social factors that contribute to mental illness, and they’re less likely to be able to obtain care. Limitations in the health care system make it harder for them to establish and adhere to treatment plans, especially in the case of lower and working class young men and older adults. The United States has created a perfect storm that sets these men up for disastrous encounters with police, and yet this issue isn’t being widely discussed outside of mental health communities, even though it’s a pressing problem.

The hyperfocus on mental illness to the exclusion of other issues means that the United States is dodging the real conversation on gun control and policy reform, the one that actually needs to happen.

The issue isn’t whether mentally ill people should have guns, but how often they end up on the other side of the barrel, encountering violence from the police and the public alike. In discussing police and social reform alike, we must talk about the violence perpetrated against the mentally ill community and the sane insistence of exceptionalising itself to avoid culpability. If you want to reduce violence, better gun control is, of course, critical: But we need to define what effective gun control looks like, and it doesn’t include persecuting mentally ill people, or even ‘funding better mental health services,’ as people often like to claim after shootings. We do need to overhaul mental health services in the United States, but the time to discuss that is not in the wake of a shooting, because the two are not connected, and repeatedly saying that they are reinforces the false corollary that mentally ill people are violent. It is not mentally ill people that the sane public should be fearing, but other sane people.

Earlier this month, the Times editorial board wrote that the United States must decouple conversations about mental illness and gun violence, saying ‘addressing mental health, on its own, will not solve the country’s gun violence problem.’ Though much of the editorial did in fact do just the opposite, stressing instances in which the editors think that mentally ill people should be barred from owning guns, this core comment — something the mentally ill community has been bringing up for decades with no result — still holds true. The hyperfocus on mental illness to the exclusion of other issues means that the United States is dodging the real conversation on gun control and policy reform, the one that actually needs to happen.

Ban a wider range of weapons, including those that do not have clear or necessary applications for civilians — people do not need to own military materiel for self defense or hunting. Institute mandatory background checks and waiting periods before the purchase of firearms. Drive the price of ammunition up, making it more difficult to obtain. Require all gun owners to take safety classes and obtain certifications for all firearms, as some states already do. Normalise this reform across the United States to make it difficult to carry noncompliant weapons across state borders.

Admit, too, that this is a societal problem that cannot be fixed with legislation. Perpetrators of violence are primarily white men, which speaks to systemic trends that need to be adjusted. That requires a sea change on a institutional level, the creation of a world in which male entitlement is dismantled and racial inequality is directly challenged. These are things that require confrontational conversations and honest evaluations of where people want this country to go.

For those in positions of power, there’s no incentive to work out ways to share that power and to take responsibility for it. Oppressed people lack the leverage to force that conversation and shouldn’t be required to drag people to the table to discuss their stranglehold on society. Those watching need to stop watching and start intervening, working directly in solidarity rather than taking a merely observational role. It’s up to sane people to roll up their sleeves and confront each other, discussing their attitudes about mental illness and challenging them to rethink assumptions. This is not something mentally ill people are necessarily capable of or responsible for, especially in the context of a society that devalues their voices.

It is likewise time for white people to take on narratives about race and gun violence, to talk about how Native Americans and Indigenous people are the most likely to be shot by police, statistically speaking, and how that speaks to centuries of oppression. To discuss the confounding circumstances that make interactions with police officers so dangerous for young Black men. Everyone needs to pick up their share of the burden in order to successfully shift social attitudes, for all the legislation in the world cannot put an end to disablism and racism.

The United States must stop picking mental illness out as the demon that will destroy the nation, the monster around the corner from the school yard, the work place, the movie theatre. Mass shootings are committed by terrible people, but it’s not mental illness that makes people terrible.

That’s something people accomplish all on their own.

Image: Paretz Partensky