“We have no national database of these lunatics… We have a completely cracked mentally ill system that has these monsters walking the streets.”
— Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President NRA
Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut there have been pages and pages written and hours of audio and video created by people from all sides of the gun control/gun safety discussion. The conversation about the need for better mental health awareness and care, especially for children, is welcome. Comments like Mr. LaPierre’s are not. His and many others’ inflammatory rhetoric about those suffering with mental illness stokes unwarranted public fears about mental illness — legitimizing stigma that we work so hard to eliminate.
The vast majority of those with mental illness are not going to commit violent acts with guns. A compassionate approach coupled with access to good mental health care systems will help to reduce the burden of all symptoms of mental illness, including self harm, which is much more likely in those suffering with psychiatric conditions. The narrative of the dangerous mentally ill person as the main operator behind the devastating toll of gun violence in this country is dangerous and deluded. It often discourages those who need help to seek it out.
I heard a gun rights supporter on a radio show emphasizing the well-worn saw that “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people.” He said that if someone puts a gun down on a table it doesn’t hurt anyone until a bad person picks it up. My mind raced over the images of the small child picking up the gun out of curiosity, the teenager picking it up in a moment of despair, the intoxicated man picking it up in a moment of rage. These people would typically not be identified as dangerously mentally ill in a background check.
Much of the destruction from easy access to firearms is not from the bad guys but rather from the person in your home who, in a moment of immature judgment or human frailty, acts impulsively. Gun deaths in the home are far more likely to be caused by people who live there than the by the phantom “villain” who comes in uninvited. Public health data has shown repeatedly that having a gun in the home increases the risk of someone in the home dying by gun violence. Suicides, accidents, and domestic disputes cause many, if not most, of the gun deaths in this county.
The ridiculous polarization of this complex discussion into histrionics characterized by sound bites such as “We don’t need gun safety measures, just lock up the crazy people,” is heartbreaking and absurd. In ignoring stacks of research, gun rights advocates vastly overestimate human beings’ capacity for self-control. It is not just “bad people” who cause harm with guns — it is you and me. People living with bipolar disorder, and all other serious psychiatric illnesses, need more support and care — not to be treated as the scapegoat for this most complex and painful social problem.
“Stop Violence” sign image available from Shutterstock