Gun Control: A Misguided Focus on Mental Illness

Don’t fall for the diversion
US News • Views: 26,005

The big push to divert the discussion of guns and gun control into a discussion about mental illness is really beginning in earnest tonight. And unfortunately, many liberals arguing for gun control are falling for the diversion, because yes, mental health care is terrible in America and it does need improvement — but they’re not seeing how the right wing (and watch, this will be a big NRA talking point in their “major press conference”) is using this issue to take the debate in a vague, pointless direction that will end up without touching anyone’s precious guns.

I’ve been watching this “mental illness” talking point gather strength on the right since Friday, and now it looks like the word has been put out to hammer it hard.

For one example out of many, at Breitbart “News:” PSYCHIATRIST: LANZA WAS ‘PSEUDOCOMMANDO’ WITH ‘WOUNDED NARCISSISM’.

The psychiatrist they’re all-caps yelling about is not Adam Lanza’s psychiatrist; it’s another CNN talking head who never met anyone involved in the case, but apparently still considers it ethical to diagnose them on air.

Here’s a good piece on the subject by Richard Friedman, M.D. at the New York Times, that makes the same point I made in this post few days ago: A Misguided Focus on Mental Illness in Gun Control Debate.

Perhaps more significant, we are not very good at predicting who is likely to be dangerous in the future. According to Dr. Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia and an expert on mass murderers, ‘Most of these killers are young men who are not floridly psychotic. They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage.’

Even though we know from large-scale epidemiologic studies like the E.C.A. study that a young psychotic male who is intoxicated with alcohol and has a history of involuntary commitment is at a high risk of violence, most individuals who fit this profile are harmless.

Jeffery Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a leading expert in the epidemiology of violence, said in an e-mail, ‘Can we reliably predict violence? ‘No’ is the short answer. Psychiatrists, using clinical judgment, are not much better than chance at predicting which individual patients will do something violent and which will not.’

It would be even harder to predict a mass shooting, Dr. Swanson said, ‘You can profile the perpetrators after the fact and you’ll get a description of troubled young men, which also matches the description of thousands of other troubled young men who would never do something like this.’

Even if clinicians could predict violence perfectly, keeping guns from people with mental illness is easier said than done. Nearly five years after Congress enacted the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, only about half of the states have submitted more than a tiny proportion of their mental health records.

How effective are laws that prohibit people with mental illness from obtaining guns? According to Dr. Swanson’s recent research, these measures may prevent some violent crime. But, he added, ‘there are a lot of people who are undeterred by these laws.’

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying; yes, mental health care in the United States needs to be improved. But the right wing is using this almost totally unrelated issue as a diversionary tactic to stop us from addressing the ongoing epidemic of gun crime. Dr. Friedman’s article concludes:

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

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