In response to the school shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in 2007, Congress passed a law to simplify the identification and tracking of people who have been previously committed to a mental hospital, and who are therefore divested of their right to possess firearms. The federal law reflects the unremarkable assumption (which was made by earlier federal legislation as well) that a person whose mental illness renders him unable to function safely in society cannot be trusted with a deadly weapon.
The 2008 federal law includes a mechanism for restoring firearms rights to people who have lost them for mental-health reasons, and since the law’s passage, more than twenty states have passed statutes to facilitate the restoration of firearms rights to the mentally ill. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has offered significant support for measures providing for gun-rights restoration.
Though the process differs from one place to another, the issue is roughly the same at every rights-restoration hearing: The judge must determine whether the person in question may be trusted to possess a firearm responsibly and without posing a threat to public safety.
The restoration of firearms rights to the mentally-ill has generated controversy and fear—among not only those who strongly favor gun control, but also those who believe that people are entitled to own weapons within limits, but understand such limits as rightly covering the mentally ill.
In this column, I take up the question: Is it is legitimate to bar people with mental illness from possessing firearms?
Gun Control Proponents Tend to Want Gun Control
Some might oppose the possession of firearms by mentally ill individuals as a logical implication of favoring gun control more generally. For a strong proponent of gun control, answering the question whether the mentally ill ought to be able to own firearms appears quite simple: “The mentally ill should not be able to own firearms, because almost no one should be able to own firearms.” As a realist, moreover, the strong supporter of gun restrictions might favor a ban on possession for the mentally ill because it is a measure around which he and others whose commitment to firearm regulation is weaker can form a consensus.
Even if a committed proponent of gun control does not share the view that mental illness is a relevant criterion for gun ownership, in other words, she can find common ground with gun-control moderates by focusing on mental patients. And of course, a gun-control enthusiast might share the view of moderate colleagues that gun ownership by the mentally ill poses a special risk to public safety, and therefore deserves to be treated as a priority.
Gun-Control Moderates Want Reasonable Limits
It is worth asking why, exactly, a consensus forms around disarming the mentally ill. Why is it that someone who is otherwise ambivalent about gun control finds the prospect of mentally ill people owning weapons almost uniquely terrifying?
The answer may seem obvious. Most of us would say that it is because the mentally ill are more dangerous than others. We perceive the mentally ill as lacking adequate control over their actions and as having an impaired ability to assess reality and to exercise judgment. That’s what being “crazy” means, isn’t it?
One might argue that disarming the mentally ill is just the flipside of their enjoying an “insanity” defense for crimes that would otherwise carry severe punishments: If you are unable to process and/or comply with the demands placed on you by the criminal law, then it follows that you cannot be trusted with a loaded weapon.
After all, when we see someone standing in the street, looking disheveled and screaming incoherently, few of us think, “What he needs is a Glock.”
Are the Limits Reasonable?
The problem with offering easy and obvious answers here, however, is that the above argument and image of the mentally ill person do not accurately portray reality.
In fact, individuals who commit violent acts of which they are deemed not guilty by reason of insanity constitute an extremely small minority. They not only represent a tiny minority of those charged with and convicted of crimes, but they also make up a very small minority of people suffering from mental illness.
Most violent offenders are sufficiently “sane” to be held accountable for their actions. More importantly, an overwhelming majority of individuals who are diagnosed with a mental illness are not at risk for committing violent acts against other people. Even when we focus strictly on those who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, we find that a large majority are not violent. The fact that a person carries a diagnosis of mental illness therefore does not provide a sound basis for concluding that the person is dangerous.
To be sure, the mentally ill population does have a higher frequency of violence than the population at large. According to one commonly cited study, 15 percent of people without a major mental disorder report past violent behavior, while 33 percent of people with a serious mental illness report past violent behavior. This statistic means that although the self-reported rate of violence in the “healthy” population is approximately one in six, the corresponding rate of self-reported violence among those with a serious mental illness is twice that, or one in three.
The doubling of a person’s odds of committing violence does sound alarming, and it might accordingly look quite sensible to keep firearms away from the mentally ill, even if we regard owning a gun as a fundamental and basic individual right.
Add to these statistics, too, the fact that mentally ill individuals have carried out some very high-profile shootings in the recent past. The young man who massacred 32 other people and then shot and killed himself at Virginia Tech, for example, had earlier, at a court hearing, been ruled a danger to himself and ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment. And the man who shot Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords turned out to be extremely emotionally disturbed, and was adjudicated incompetent to stand trial after the shooting.
In light of the tragic outcomes to the victims of these shooters alone, doesn’t it seem sensible—and even obligatory—to disarm the mentally ill?
More “Dangerous” Than Average
Before answering this question, it is worth noting that the mentally ill do not make up the only identifiable group of people that carries out more violence, on average, than those outside the group. For a host of reasons, for example, African Americans appear to be disproportionately involved in committing homicides, relative to Whites and relative to Latinos.
By some accounts, the Black/White disparity is eight-fold, so that the odds that a man will commit a homicide are eight times greater if he is African American, than if he is White. Due to a combination of poverty, race discrimination, and the assortment of experiences that differentially harm African-American individuals and communities, this disparity in violence may not be all that surprising.
Why bring up something as incendiary as racial disparities in rates of violence? I do so in order to note two important facts. First, the White/Black disparity is four times greater than the mentally-well/mentally-ill disparity, the latter of which is regularly cited as a reason to disarm the mentally ill.
Second, and just as significantly, we would rightly reject out of hand the very idea of banning gun ownership on the basis of race. Stated differently, though a racially based gun ban would apparently respond to a much more sizable disparity in violence than a mental-illness-based gun ban, we can easily appreciate how offensive and unfair a racially based ban would be.
I suspect that even the most committed gun-control proponent would balk at a racially based ban on weapons (and not solely because the ban would violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause).
Ah, but that is different, the reader might be thinking. Regardless of what the rate of violence might be among different racial groups, the attributes that distinguish individual people in a racial category are far more informative than the simple fact of race. Knowing that a person is African American therefore does not tell us nearly enough to enable us to assess how responsible the person will be about his firearm. In contrast—the reader might suggest—mentally ill people all share an impairment in their brains, which bears directly upon their capacity to behave in a non-violent, pro-social manner.
This thought is half true. Knowing a person’s race does not tell us enough to allow for an accurate judgment about safety and dangerousness. To maintain otherwise would be to engage in “racial profiling,” through which we avoid treating others with the respect and dignity they deserve and instead engage in racist shortcuts that exacerbate existing hardships associated with being Black in America.
The half of the thought that is untrue, however, is the assumption that the mentally ill all share a unifying characteristic that makes generalizing about their supposed irresponsibility and dangerousness a sensible and legitimate thing to do. In reality, individuals who have received a diagnosis of mental illness are just as distinct from one another as members of a given racial group are distinct from one another.
It is thus as sloppy to leap to conclusions about people who suffer from mental illness, as it is to jump to conclusions about members of racial minorities. Furthermore, in both cases, people who already face discrimination and stereotypes, along with a history of violent mistreatment and cruelty, should be able to expect better from the surrounding population.
Another Potential Target?
At this point, let us imagine that there exists another distinct group in the United States in which each individual is almost ten times as likely to commit homicide as an individual outside the group. Let us assume further that in most cases, we can identify members of this community by a DNA test (and in most cases, simply by looking at the person in question). Let us imagine as well that, unlike individuals who suffer from a mental illness and members of racial minorities, the people who comprise the group at issue have not been historically mistreated or abused as outsiders by those not part of the group.
As it turns out, this group does exist. It is, in fact, quite large, and its members are disproportionately wealthy, well compensated for their work, and powerful.
Who could I be talking about? I am speaking of men.
The disparity in homicides committed by men versus women puts to shame the other disparities in violence that we have examined above. A rule that banned gun ownership by men would accordingly remove a huge number of weapons in circulation. It would be a “first step” with teeth that might truly take a bite out of lethal violence.
My suggestion that we ban male gun ownership is largely intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Whether or not it would be desirable, a proposal that men be prohibited from owning a firearm in virtue of their sex would go nowhere fast.
The truth is that I am not interested in arming the mentally ill and dangerous. Like the NRA, I do not quarrel with the idea that a person who has been involuntarily committed for being mentally ill and dangerous should be divested of his firearm(s) until it is determined that he no longer poses a danger.
I would, however, submit that if we are to continue to protect people’s right to own firearms, then we should not irrebuttably presume that those with a history of serious mental illness are uniquely ill-equipped to exercise that right responsibly. Judgments must be made on an individual basis, taking the greatest account of prior violent actions, whether or not those actions were associated with mental illness.
To rely instead, as many media reports have, on the fact that people with serious mental illnesses have higher rates of violence than the general population, is to engage in a form of invidious profiling. Such profiling may be more socially accepted than racial profiling is, but as we have seen, it is no better justified by the numbers, and it exposes the same profound indifference that racial prejudice does, to the individual dignity that rightly attaches to everyone.