Dr. Sara Gorman examines the risks involved with mental illness-focused gun control.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting earlier this year in Newtown, Connecticut, debates have been raging in the U.S. about what steps to take to prevent such tragedies in the future. In particular, policy officials and the public alike have been pondering whether more stringent controls on potential gun buyers and gun owners with mental illness should be implemented and what these controls might look like. Shortly after the Newtown shootings, Senator elect Marco Rubio called for guns to be “kept out of the hands of the mentally ill.” In a more extreme statement, the National Rifle Association (NRA) suggested an “active national database of the mentally ill.” A recent study by researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found striking similarities in the opinions of gun-owners and non-gun-owners when it came to restricting the ability of people with mental illness to own guns. 85% of all respondents to the survey supported requiring states to report people to national background-check systems who are prohibited from owning guns because of a history of being involuntarily committed or being declared mentally incompetent by a court. Most respondents, whether gun-owners or non-gun-owners, were resistant to allowing people with mental illness to own guns. Clearly, the provision of tight restrictions on potential gun owners with mental illness is an unusual arena in which gun-owners and non-gun-owners can agree.
There is no question that guns pose a potentially serious problem for people with mental illness. Some forms of mental illness can be associated with heightened potential for violence, but, more importantly, the risk for successful suicide among depressed persons with guns is much higher than the risk for those without guns. Nevertheless, are gun control efforts that require the names of people with mental illness to be kept in a national database such a good idea?
The truth is, we have to be much more careful about gun control efforts that have the potential to target people with mental illness. There are two main reasons to approach these kinds of laws with a healthy dose of caution: one reason is that gun control efforts focusing on mental illness have the potential to exacerbate public stigma about the potential violence associated with mental disorders; the second reason is that gun laws that in particular involve collecting the names of people with mental illness in national databases have the potential to deter people from seeking the care they may desperately need.
Ample evidence has suggested that stigma and discrimination against people with mental illness is often correlated with perceptions that people with mental illness are inherently violent. People who believe that mental illness is associated with violence are more likely to condone forced legal action and coerced treatment of people with mental illness and may feel that victimizing and bullying people with mental illness is in some way justified. The idea that mental illness and violence are closely related is quite common. A 2006 national survey found that 60% of Americans believed that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward another individual. Even so, research has repeatedly established that psychiatric disorders do not make people more likely to act in a violent manner. Gun laws targeting people with mental illness are likely to worsen the perception that mental illness and violence go hand in hand, and, as a result, stigma and discrimination are likely to be exacerbated.
Gun laws targeting people with mental illness may in some instances save lives. Successful suicides, or even suicide attempts, might be avoided, for instance. On the other hand, in addition to perpetuating a stigmatizing belief that people with mental illness are dangerous, gun laws that focus on people with mental illness might involve measures that deter people from seeking psychiatric care. If people are afraid that the government and other parties will have access to their confidential mental health information, they may be much more reluctant to seek help in the first place. In the end, this kind of deterrence could cause more harm than good, not to mention that increased stigma and discrimination also often lead to a decrease in help-seeking behaviors.
It is true that the U.S. mental health system is in need of reform and that strategies to detect people in danger of hurting themselves or others earlier are desperately needed. Even so, it is difficult even for mental health professionals to predict the future violence potential of their patients. Furthermore, it is not only misguided but also potentially harmful to focus gun control efforts on people with psychiatric disorders. What’s more, these kinds of efforts will probably make very little difference in the homicide rate in the U.S. It would be more worth our while to focus gun control efforts not on mental illness per se but perhaps more importantly on alcohol abuse. The association between alcohol abuse and gun violence is convincing. As a result, in Pennsylvania, for example, people who have been convicted of more than three drunk driving offenses may not purchase a gun. Keeping guns out of bars and other drinking establishments is also probably a wise move. Doing background checks for domestic violence is also a useful measure in reducing gun violence in the home. As the U.S. reconsiders gun control legislation, it is important to recognize that some measures might do more harm than good. Paying closer attention to scientific evidence and remaining focused on the most effective strategies for targeting those most likely to commit violent acts must be the strategy going forward.