Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Are More Gun Laws for Mentally Ill Off Target?

• January 13, 2011 • 2:58 PM

Obsessing over the role mental illness played in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting avoids the larger issue of gun violence, argues the former head of the American Psychiatric Association.

Headlines have reached one consensus about the policy implications of the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., this past weekend.

“After Tucson: Why Are The Mentally Ill Still Bearing Arms?” asks Time.

How can we prevent crazy people from getting guns while still protecting the Second Amendment?” poses a lively Yahoo! debate.

Ten Rampages by Mentally Ill People Who Bought Guns That Can Teach Lawmakers What to do Next,” blares a Phoenix New Times blog posting.

Americans often squirm around these two topics — gun control and mental illness — but have little trouble finding agreement when they intersect, as they appear to have in the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. At the very least, we can all agree to keep guns out of the hands of unstable people, right?

Attempting to do so, though, has never particularly proven to improve public safety. And if anything, says Paul Appelbaum, director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University, channeling so much attention toward the mentally ill distracts us from the much larger problem of gun violence and further stigmatizes the mentally ill who are rarely responsible for it.

Federal gun laws have singled out the mentally ill since 1968, although for decades the states charged with implementing the ban rarely enforced it. Some were cowed by political opposition to the appearance of “gun control.” More often, states didn’t have the money or the technical resources to keep track of the people “adjudicated as a mental defective” who were to be excluded from gun ownership.

Then there was another problem.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

“Nobody was quite sure what that meant,” said Appelbaum, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Also excluded were people who had been “committed to a mental institution” — another imprecise standard. What exactly constitutes a “mental institution”? Does voluntary admission to one count? Separate state laws produced yet more definitions.

After nearly 30 years, the 1993 Brady Bill for the first time narrowed the federal language, and another decade later, the Virginia Tech shooting dramatically boosted state participation in background check databases. Today, federal law excludes: people who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others, or as mentally unable to manage their own affairs; people who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility; people found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity; and people deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.

Still, the words “mental defective” are used in federal regulation.

“The term’s problematic in at least two ways,” Appelbaum said. “One is it has a pejorative ring to it. ‘Mental defective’ sounds like something you call somebody you don’t like on the street. Secondly, it is not a term that has a precise meaning. Are we talking here about people with mental retardation? People who’ve suffered brain injury? People who have psychiatric disorders? Who are we talking about?”

Today, gun laws that target the mentally ill — alongside convicted felons — are founded on a series of assumptions: that people with mental illness are particularly dangerous, that legislation restricting their gun ownership will lead to decreased violence, and that this strategy will make a difference in the overall safety of society.

Such laws also assume that the background-check system is an effective means in the first place of keeping guns out of the hands of any type of dangerous person.

“In a society like ours where firearms are so prevalent — there are more handguns than there are people in the U.S. today — that seems like a highly dubious proposition,” Appelbaum said. “People who really want guns are arguably likely to be able to get them whether they are covered by this statute or not. It’s an empirical question as to whether this actually works in keeping guns out of anybody’s hands, or at least very many people’s hands.”

The best data Appelbaum has found, which dates to the late 1980s and early ’90s, also suggests that, at most, 3-5 percent of violent acts in the U.S. are attributable to serious mental illnesses as a risk factor — and most of those acts don’t involve guns. More recent studies in England and Sweden suggest that number for violent acts may be as low as 1-2 percent.

“To say that another way, if no one with a mental illness committed a violent act, we would still have 95-97 percent of the baseline level of violence,” Appelbaum said. “However you cut it, it looks as though we’re just talking about the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems of violence in our society, which raises the quite reasonable question as to why we’re so focused on the mentally ill?”

Not only is that focus a distraction, he adds, but it comes with the significant downside of further stigmatizing people with mental illness and confusing the public as to the notion that mental illness is a significant cause of violence in this country.

“To take an approach which has substantial costs — the states are spending a lot of money on these databases — and implement it without any evidence suggesting that it’s likely to be effective, and in fact a good deal of inferential reason to believe that it’s not likely to be effective,” Appelbaum said, “is simply not good public policy.”

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.