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Mental Illness & Gun Control

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laura Caccioppoli 
October 27, 2015

There is no doubt there is growing support for policies that prevent gun violence. In fact, 89 percent of Americans believe there should be a background check for all gun sales. Yet despite widespread public support, even amongst Republicans (86 percent) and National Rifle Association members (74 percent), there has been no substantial federal legislation to reduce gun violence.

Those who identify with the Democratic Party often live in more urban areas, while those who identify with the Republican Party tend to live in areas that are more rural. Democrats cram into urban areas; they lose influence in other districts. However, Republicans spread across multiple districts and retain majorities in these areas, which gives them the upper hand in the House of Representatives. In numerical terms, Republicans control 57 percent of the seats in the House and govern over 86 percent of the landmass. This is quite efficient and gives Republicans, who tend to be more pro-gun, an advantage when it comes to preventing legislation.

Yet, this cannot fully explain why no gun policies or legislation has passed. As noted, a majority of Republicans do support at least some gun regulation. Even so, pro-gun advocates do tend to be single-issue voters, which may skew the data slightly. Moreover, the wording of the poll may also alter the results. Republicans and gun owners are less likely to support “stricter gun control laws,” even though many of them support individual policies that would make it more difficult to obtain a gun. Additionally, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been very successful at controlling votes on gun-policy despite representing only 2 percent of Americans.

guncontrol101815 - LC

Although the Founding Fathers likely intended the “right to bear arms,” to refer to militia, and not ordinary citizens, let us take the statement that “the right to bear arms shall not be infringed” at face value. It is still acceptable to prevent people from obtaining firearms. Just as the freedom of speech does not give one the right to be disruptive or cause a clear and imminent threat, the right to bear arms must follow the same logic.

In fact, Republicans and gun-owners already agree to this point, because they have a whole class of individuals whom they believe are “too dangerous” to “bear arms” – the mentally ill. The use of mental illness as a scapegoat has been the biggest factor in why the U.S. has yet to create substantial federal legislation to prevent gun violence.

Although it fits with our social, cultural and political narrative, there is no evidence to suggest that those with mental illness are committing mass shootings. Some of the most common psychiatric disorders such as depression, attention disorders and anxiety “have no correlation with violence whatsoever.” Psychiatric disorders are not predictors of gun violence; in fact, mental illness is the cause of just four percent of violence in the U.S.

Furthermore, the use of mental illness as a scapegoat further stigmatizes a group already victimized. It is more likely – about 60 to 120 percent –for someone with mental illness to be the victim of gun violence. There are many better predictors of violence such as poverty, substance abuse and violent history, to name a few.

Mental illness also masks cultural biases, anxieties, racism and xenophobia. Before the 1960s, schizophrenia was labeled as a “docile” illness. By 1968, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders included more aggressive language to describe schizophrenia. Combined with the racial tensions of the time, and less overt racism, it is no surprise that many of those with schizophrenia were also black.

Those who sought to oppress and remove guns from the hands of the Black Panthers, who dared to open-carry, cried “mental illness” and “schizophrenia.” Interestingly, the NRA and conservative icon President Reagan both were against open-carry when it came to blacks. President Reagan even went so far as to sign the Mulford Act of 1967, prohibiting open-carry.

This framing and language prevails in today’s discourse: the “good guy with a gun versus the thug” argument. It is clear who the “thug” is – it is the black man with the hooded sweatshirt or the man with schizophrenia. This argument also raises a host of other questions. For example, how can law enforcement tell which man with the gun is “good?”

Reframing the issue around mental illness changes the conversation from the 32,000 handgun-related deaths per year and the 467,321 crimes committed with a gun in 2011, to rare instances of mass shootings. Instead of focusing on reducing gun violence through smarter gun policies, the dialogue quickly shifts to why gun policies will not work because those with mental illness do not have access to adequate services. Using mental illness as a scapegoat ignores the truth that states with loose gun control laws, and more guns, have a “disproportionately high number of deaths.” In fact, after “stand your ground” laws were implemented in Florida, the state saw a 200 percent increase in the number of disputes resolved by a firearm.

If the U.S. is going to pass any substantial law to reduce gun violence, it can no longer accept spurious arguments that blame an already vulnerable population. Maybe guns don’t kill people, but statistically neither do people with mental illness. People kill people disproportionately in states with less stringent gun laws and states with more guns. 

Author: Laura Caccioppoli recently graduated from Villanova University with an MA in political science and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management. She currently works at University of the Sciences where she plans to continue her education in health policy. Her research interests are in health policy, cultural competency and social justice.

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