Mental Illness and Gun Control: Where Do We Draw the Line Between Constitutional Rights and Individuals’ Safety?

America is not a stranger to gun violence as it leads developing countries in the number of gun-related homicides per year. Since one of America’s most horrendous acts of gun violence in its history, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 that killed 20 children and 6 adults, the United States has faced 1,518 mass shootings as of October 2017. On Sunday, November 5, the United States gained another entry in the massacre-at-the-hands-of-a-gunman section of its history books with at least 26 people dead and even more wounded. In the wake of this tragedy, President Donald Trump is calling this event a mental illness issue, rather than an issue of gun control. This raises an interesting point about whether mental illness plays a role in these acts of gun violence and how far the government should go in regulating who is able to obtain guns in this country.

One stance on gun control in regards to mental illness is from a political standpoint where both Republicans and Democrats agree that mass shootings are due to mental illness and use mental illness to push their different political agendas on gun control. For instance, from a conservative viewpoint, since mass shootings are due to mental illness alone, they are not an issue of gun control. This argument was highlighted in Trump administration’s recent attempts to reverse gun control policy that was implemented after the Virginia Tech shooting under the Obama administration. The policy states that those who cannot hold a job or manage their own social security due to a mental illness diagnosis are not able to purchase a gun. Republican politicians justify this stance by saying that the focus should be on mental health reform, rather than gun control. However, Republicans’ claims to be concerned with mental health reform are not accurate reflections on their most recent political act; weeks before the Texas shooting, the GOP was endorsing an Affordable Care reform bill that would let insurance companies reduce coverage on mental health services. Therefore, this stance seems to have more to do with protecting second amendment guns rights than concern for the mentally ill community. On the other hand, a more progressive view of this issue argues in favor of gun control in order to keep guns out of the hands of those who are mentally ill. They tend to accuse the Republican side of allowing dangerous people to have access to means for killing other people and use this claim to push for tighter gun control policies.

Another argument people turn to during this debate of gun control in regards to the mentally ill is the question of whether or not restricting firearm access for certain people with mental illness is discrimination. From one standpoint, gun control laws specific to those with mental illness takes away a Constitutional right from a group of people using nonstandardized criteria based on a lack of empirical data. Some people also question if not being able to work or manage Social Security money are justifiable reasons to take away someone’s rights; by the same token, the mental health conditions that might prevent someone from owning a gun are a very broad range from intellectual disabilities to depression or bipolar disorder. The other side of this stance focuses on the outcomes of gun violence in regards to suicide prevention as justification to intervene in one’s eligibility to purchase a gun; for this stance, gun control is not a matter of infringing on the rights of the mentally ill person, but a matter of keeping them safe from themselves. Many argue that by keeping guns away from those with a diagnosed mental illness, there will be a decrease in the suicide rates in America. However, while it is true that mental illness increases the risk of suicide and most people who die by suicide have a mental illness, studies show that people who die by suicide are less likely to use a gun and more likely to use alternative means. Once again, a stance on gun control and mental illness is riddled with misconceptions and claims that are not supported by scientific data.

Overall, these different stances – the two sides of the political argument and the two sides of the rights of the mentally ill argument – seem to converge at this idea that mental illness leads to an increased risk of violence, in spite of substantial evidence that disproves this statement. For instance, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the majority of people diagnosed with a mental disorder are not any more likely to commit a violent act than someone without a mental illness diagnosis. In fact, someone with a mental illness commits only 3-5% of violent acts in America and those who do have a mental illness are more likely to be the victims of these crimes, rather than the perpetrators. This contradiction is consistent with a reoccurring trend in forensic psychology of ignoring empirical data and favoring personal perceptions over objective data. These misconceptions about violent behavior and mental illness seem to come from media representation of people with mental illnesses being involved in violent acts that are out of proportion to the actual amount of occurrences. Research shows that the more people are exposed to stories about mass shootings committed by people experiencing mental illness, the more likely they are to feel negatively toward the mentally ill community as a whole. According to a survey in 2013, 46% of Americans believed those experiencing a serious mental illness, specifically schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to be “far more dangerous than the general population.” Therefore, it is evident that these stigmas are created from a disproportionate amount of media coverage of violent acts committed by the mentally ill that only represents only a small population of these people.

In my own opinion, while I am generally in favor of gun control policies given the US’s horrifying history and recent occurrences of mass shootings, I think there needs to be some distinction in the fact mere mental illness alone does not automatically deem a person a threat to society. I think that gun control policies should reflect consideration of other factors that do have empirical data supporting their connection to increased risk of violent acts against others such as a history of domestic violence, violent misdemeanors, drinking while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, etc. Putting aside empirical data that clearly says mental illness does not correlate to increased risk of committing violence against other people, even if someone wanted to claim that untreated mental illness is the main cause of mass shootings, then why are we not focused on improving access to mental health services? I think that for many people it is comforting to be able to pinpoint vicious human behavior to one specific defect, like mental illness; however, mental illness then becomes a scapegoat for this problem of gun violence and no action is then done to correct this problem.

Ideally, any resolution to this issue should be policies that are supported by empirical data in order to accurately determine who is at risk for committing violent gun acts like mass shootings and who is not at risk and can maintain their gun rights. As seen in the case of the Texas church massacre, there are dangerous flaws in the background check system for purchasing firearms. For instance, based on the shooter’s previous record of domestic violence while in the US Air Force, he never should have been able to buy a gun. However, because this information was not properly exchanged between the military and civilian justice systems, this disqualification did not appear in his background check. Additionally, one could argue that even if he had not passed the background check, gaps in the system would have allowed him to take up illegal firearms from a private seller, for instance. Therefore, these loopholes highlight a broken system that has deadly consequences that must be addressed.

Overall, there needs to be a better balance between protecting the general public and not infringing on individual’s rights based on discriminatory factors such as having a mental illness. Furthermore, background checks should be universalized and systems that are not relaying information correctly should be held accountable for ensuring that individual’s records are accurate and appear in the system. When someone does pose a legitimate and an immediate threat to themselves or other people, law enforcement should be given a warrant to disarm those not qualified to retain their right to bear arms.

In conclusion, with each act of gun violence that occurs, this issue of gun control tends to go through a cyclical process of trending on social media websites for a few days, and then quietly disappearing after the next current affair is brought to attention. Politicians argue for each party’s stances on gun control and some people argue for regulation, but ultimately, no action is taken to reduce the occurrence of these violent acts. This standstill is largely due to Americans’ conflicting opinions and viewpoints that never seem to reach common ground and are plagued with misconceptions from inaccurate media representation of the mentally ill. While Donald Trump and other Republicans deem the tragic Texas shooting an issue of mental illness over gun control, I argue that it is both; this country has a major problem with gun violence, but it also has a low priority for mental health care access that could reduce the rate of untreated mental health disorders in this country. By reforming current gun control policies to reflect empirical data and mending the flaws in background check systems, maybe the United States can reduce the normalcy of seeing these gun violence tragedies in our country.

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