obamacrpdI just watched President Obama’s “Shameful Day for Washington” speech, and I take issue with the fact that he included people with severe mental illness in a group he described as “dangerous individuals.” Here’s what he said:

“By now it’s well known that 90 percent of the American people support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun. We’re talking about convicted felons, people convicted of domestic violence, people with a severe mental illness.”

I think president Obama is well intentioned, but he should have at least qualified his statement by saying something like “… people with severe mental illness who prove to be a danger to themselves or others.” Here’s why: Grouping all people with severe mental illness in with convicted felons and perpetrators of domestic violence…

  • Further stigmatizes those who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.
  • Falsely characterizes those who have a severe mental illness as being dangerous. Yes, some people who have a severe mental illness are dangerous and should be prohibited from owning firearms, but a large majority of people with severe mental illness do not pose a danger to themselves or others.
  • Fails to recognize that many people with severe mental illness manage their illness effectively and are responsible, contributing members of society.
  • Fails to recognize that people with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators of such crimes. Shouldn’t they have the same rights to protect themselves?
  • Discourages people who are struggling with mental illness from seeking the medical help they need or disclosing information that could help in their treatment. This could contribute to an increase in undiagnosed mental illness.
  • Does nothing to keep guns out of the hands of people with undiagnosed severe mental illness who have demonstrated violent tendencies.
  • Does nothing to prevent access to guns owned by friends, family members, neighbors, and so. (Adam Lanza used his mom’s guns.)

In addition…

  • People with guns can experience temporary lapses in good judgment for any number of reasons, leading to senseless gun violence.
  • A lot of idiots who probably shouldn’t own guns have the right to own them, and nobody is demanding screening to prevent stupid or irresponsible people from owning firearms.

I think a more general exclusion would be more appropriate, something more along the lines of Arizona’s wording: Arizona prohibits possession of a firearm by any person who “Has been found to constitute a danger to himself or herself… and whose right to possess a firearm has not been restored.”

Personally, I think universal background checks are a good idea. Extending them to guns purchased at gun shows or over the Internet seems like a no-brainer. But we need to be careful not to treat everyone with a severe mental illness as a dangerous criminal.

What do you think: Should severe mental illness be an exclusion for gun ownership?

President Obama photo by borman 818, available through a Creative Commons attribution license