By Mark Houser
In the gun control debate, the invocation of “mental health” is, unfortunately, a red herring. The failure to recognize that reality leads to policy ideas that threaten both our liberty and the wellness of those who struggle with mental health issues.
In the wake of murderous mass shootings, people cite “mental health” as both an explanation for the murders and a means by which they can be prevented. Conservatives and Republicans, grasping for alternatives to conventional gun control, however improbable, are perhaps especially prone to making this mistake. Donald Trump himself has said, “I don’t want mentally ill people to be having guns. Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Suppose it’s true that all or most mass shooters are mentally ill. Maybe that’s true by definition: If a demonstrated willingness to carry out mass murder isn’t indicative of mental illness, what is?
But does the observation that mass shooters are mentally ill have useful public policy implications? Will looking to “mental illness” help to identify potential mass shooters before they commit their crimes? Probably not–but the costs of that approach are certain and severe.
Perhaps all mass murderers are mentally ill, but hardly any mentally ill people are mass murderers. By attempting to use mental illness as a screening tool, you’re not making it easier to find the needle–you’re making the haystack bigger and filling it with pins that look like the needle you’re trying to find. And at the same time, you’re further stigmatizing mental illness and pressuring people to hide their problems instead of getting the help that they need.
As the Firearms Policy Coalition’s Matthew Larosiere pointed out in a recent interview, that’s one problem with “red flag” laws: If someone fears he might lose his rights because of an allegation that he’s mentally unwell, he may not seek therapy, medication, or other necessary treatment that would identify him as someone struggling with a mental health issue.
And how exactly does anyone presume to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people? The existing background check process, to which the vast majority of gun purchases are subject, already addresses the clear-cut cases. The standard form completed by gun purchasers asks, “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?”
But most mass murderers, prior to the commission of their crimes, could honestly answer “no.” Indeed, though many things may seem like “obvious signs” in hindsight, most murderers don’t seem like murderers until it’s too late–that’s why they weren’t incarcerated or institutionalized in the first place.
We already have laws that can do that. Even if we passed an additional law to impose background checks on the small number of private gun transactions, it would suffer from the exact same deficiency.
Fine, you say–then what about ambiguous demonstrations of potentially dangerous mental illness? What about signs and indicators of mental illness short of an actual adjudication or diagnosis? Can’t we stop mass shootings by paying more attention to those?
Probably not. The problem here is one of false positives. Millions of people struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other common mental health problems at some point in their lives, if not persistently. And everyone occasionally says or does things that, to another’s subjective–and perhaps ignorant–perspective, may indicate the presence of a mental health issue.
Should, therefore, everyone be in danger of losing their rights at the whim of some new government agency? Imagine if other constitutionally-protected rights, like freedom of speech, could be violated so easily. If the bar for the deprivation of a fundamental right is set so low, contingent merely upon some agent’s subjective determination, none of our rights would be secure. This is a cure infinitely worse than the disease.
So conservatives are wrong to see red flag laws and similar policies as a reasonable or modest concession to gun control proponents: it’s more like handing over a blank check. Worse still, by stigmatizing mental illness and discouraging people from seeking treatment, red flag laws exacerbate the very problem they’re supposed to fix.
Seizing upon “mental health” as the solution to gun violence will lead to erroneous and dangerous conclusions that threaten the wellness of people who live with mental health issues, and the liberty of us all.
Mark Houser independently researches and writes on firearms-related issues.