After mass shootings, gun-control proponents and lawmakers are
always quick to say we need to keep weapons out of the hands of the
“mentally ill” and that better policies would identify people who
were likely to snap and start killing people.
The real world – not to mention the Constitution – stands
athwart fantasies of precognition. If you want to get a sense of
how seemingly common-sensical restrictions on the rights of
mentally ill people play out, check out this Reason TV video, which
originally went live on November 18, 2013.
In the wake of any mass shooting, there’s a predictable and
justified burst of public outrage and sorrow followed by a series
of do-something legislative proposals meant to prevent similar
tragedies from ever occurring again.
Depending on the political leanings of the politician or media
figure offering the solution, the proposal often rests upon one of
these twin assumptions: We must rid the world of the wrong kinds of
weapons (i.e., “assault weapons”), or, we must keep guns away from
the wrong kinds of people (i.e., “crazy people”).
“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their
moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with
wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave,
while provoking others to try to make their mark?” asked
Wayne LaPierre, official lightning rod of the National Rifle
Association, in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary shooting. “A
dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess
how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national
database of the mentally ill?”
Even the nation’s premier gun lobby believes keeping guns away
from the mentally ill is a good idea. It’s a sensible-sounding
proposal, a logical precaution. But some forensic psychiatrists,
whose jobs include the task of identifying potentially violent
individuals, say that targeting the mentally ill isn’t as simple as
A recent Mayo
Clinic study points out that mass shooters tend to
meticulously plan their crimes weeks or months in advance,
undermining the idea that the mentally ill simply “snap” and go on
shooting rampages while also complicating the notion of effective
gun control through gun registries, since a methodical planner has
plenty of time to obtain weapons through illegal channels.
Take Lynette Phillips, a suburban California housewife who
suffers from anxiety disorder. She encountered the APPS after a
trip to Aurora Charter Oak Hospital’s psych ward resulted in her
involuntary commitment. Phillips claims she voluntarily checked
herself into the hospital after a bad reaction to a new medication
and that the involuntary commitment was an error made by an
overzealous nurse. Representatives from Aurora
Charter Oak declined to comment on the story, but she was
released before the full 72-hour hold, and a letter
from Phillips’ personal psychiatristconfirms some of the
details in her version of events, including the fact that she
sought treatment herself.
A more basic problem with a strategy that targets mentally ill
people is that the vast majority of them are not violent. When you
control for substance abuse, a factor that exacerbates violence in
all populations, only about 4.3% of
people with a “severe” mental illness are likely to commit
any sort of violence, according to a University of Chicago study.
The violence rate among those with a “non-severe” mental illness is
about equal to that of the “normal” population.
“In the absence of a history of violence or any of the other
risk factors, it is impossible to predict who will become violent,”
says Stephen K. Hoge, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia
University. “If we put doctors in the position of acting on behalf
of the government or acting on behalf of social control, then that
undermines the therapeutic mission.”
In other words, by targeting and stigmatizing the mentally ill,
especially in the absence of a coherent risk-identification
strategy, the effect may be to discourage people who need help from
seeking it, while also stripping away the rights of a huge group of
people who will likely never commit a violent act.
California is the vanguard of the gun registry movement in the
U.S. The Attorney General’s office maintains a database called
Prohibited Persons System” (APPS), which identifies three
groups of people whose guns should be confiscated: Individuals with
a documented history of violence, convicted felons/wanted persons,
and people with a “severe mental illness,” as defined by the state.
Lumping the broad category of “mentally ill people” in with
criminals and violent abusers can ensnare innocent and seemingly
harmless individuals in an overly expansive dragnet.
But the involuntary commitment was enough to put Phillips on the
government radar and make her an Armed Prohibited Person. A few
days after she returned home, armed officers from the California
Department of Justice entered her house in order to confiscate a
gun she’d purchased as a gift for her husband. Upon finding more
than one firearm in the house, the agents took all of the Phillips’
guns and ammunition. They had no warrant. The CA DOJ would not
comment on this story.
“They didn’t need to do that,” says Lynette’s husband, David,
who described a scene in which the officers spread all of their
guns and ammunition on the front yard as the neighborhood watched.
“They embarrassed us in front of the neighbors.”
The Phillips have no criminal record, history of violence, or
documented substance abuse problems. But it was only with the help
of an attorney that they were able to get their guns back from the
state after several months of effort, and only under the condition
that David keep the guns in a safe that’s inaccessible to Lynette.
They did not return any of the seized ammo.
The Phillips have vowed never to let government agents into
their home without a warrant again, and Lynette remains shaken by
the experience. Since its inception in 2001, the APPS program has
resulted in the seizure of more than 11,000 guns.
“To the extent that society continues to vilify the mentally ill
and scapegoat them as the primary cause of gun violence, is a major
step backward,” says Hoge.
Watch the Reason TV video above, “The Truth About Mental Illness
and Guns,” to hear more about flawed gun control policies and for
the full story behind the Phillips’ gun confiscation
Approximately 7:30 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Shot
by Tracy Oppenheimer, Will Neff, and Weissmueller.
Go here for more links, downloadable versions, and videos.
from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/11/23/gun-grab-against-mentally-ill-wont-make