After the Newtown, Conn. shootings in 2012, I addressed the deep despair that I felt the way I often do, by writing about it. In a post on my old blog, I wrote that the National Rifle Association should shift the debate to mental health since they wouldn’t ever countenance any restriction on firearm ownership, no matter how common-sense.
I feel like an idiot now for writing that.
Several school shootings later, our country faces another seemingly intractable debate on guns and the NRA has chosen to cast the problem as a mental health problem. They claim, not without some justification, that these mass shooters suffer from mental illness. After all, no completely sane person would do that sort of thing. Their argument muddies the waters a bit as plenty of people with mental illness wouldn’t do that sort of thing, either and lumping all mentally ill people together demonizes a population already fighting against shame.
Moreover, it’s total bullshit.
If you think arguing with gun enthusiasts over the definition of “assault rifle” seems intense, imagine arguing over what “mental illness” means. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of mental health professionals known as DSM, had just shy of 500 pages in 1980. Now it has 947 pages, which speaks to ongoing learning about mental illness as well as disagreements in the mental health community.
Even if we consider the science of mental illness settled and even if Federal and state governments adequately fund mental health initiatives, it seems unlikely to me that the NRA and their conservative constituents would ever accept the consequences of increased vigilance.
Let’s imagine a scenario where a teacher, worried about a student’s mental health, or perhaps a well-meaning student who sees disturbing messages from a fellow student on a social network, asks the authorities to intervene. I have to imagine that a protocol would include a home visit and family interview by a social worker or psychologist. Here are some things that might happen:
AR-15 in the home
Let’s say the child shows signs that point to his becoming a mass shooter (again; let’s assume we can agree on what those signs are). Now let’s say that the father keeps a registered and code-compliant AR-15 in an unlocked cabinet without a trigger lock and that these acts are legal in the jurisdiction. Should the police take away the legal weapon, even though it doesn’t belong to the kid? Can they require the father to lock the gun up?
Signs of abuse
It’s no secret that mass shooters often have a history of domestic abuse, either that they commit or that they had fallen victim to. Let’s say the social worker uncovers signs of abuse by a family member or friend. Should the police arrest the perpetrator, even though the evidence against him was uncovered for a different purpose?
What about other potential weapons?
Let’s stick with the NRA’s perennial “people kill people” argument. Let’s say that everyone agrees that the child has a potential to become a killer. Should he be hospitalized? If not, can the authorities restrict his access to things that could be used as weapons, such as knives, baseball bats or motor vehicles? If so, how?
I believe that any mental health-first solution to gun violence would result in junk legislation, laws with too many loopholes to allow what legislators expect them to do. More to the point, I think we can overcome the semantic debate over what constitutes a dangerous firearm with a good faith effort by both sides. As I’ve noted before, Congress has enacted effective and substantial limitations to the Second Amendment at least twice, permanently banning civilian ownership of both machine guns and cheap, imported pistols. There’s no reason to believe that they can’t find common ground over issues like magazine capacities or gratuitous military features on civilian guns.
With that, I’m done giving free advice to the NRA.