I’m concerned about a letter I received in the mail yesterday. It was from Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly at Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC. They wanted my money, of course, and they had a petition to Congress for me to sign saying I’ll only vote for candidates who support requiring background checks for all gun purchases. Okay, that makes sense to me; considering the hoops one must jump through to get a driver’s license (a privilege, not a right), get a job, receive health care, etc., a 5-minute background check before buying a gun seems like very little to ask. Who knows how many lives it could save?
My concern is with the wording of their message, particularly regarding people with mental illness (such as myself). A quote from Gabby Giffords included in the petition shamed politicians for blocking legislation that would have made it harder for “criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses” to acquire guns. The first sentence on the Americans for Responsible Solutions About page describes the person who shot Gabby Giffords as a “mentally ill young man.” They list who should be banned from buying guns via Criminal Background Checks: “dangerous people like criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill.” It is important to prevent gun ownership by “criminals, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill, and other dangerous people.” Even in their Poll where they offer addressing mental illness as a solution that visitors can support, their focus is not on actually helping those of us with mental illness but on identifying and treating us “before they commit heinous crimes.”
People with mental illness are not a threat to society. We’re a threat to ourselves. During a panel on “Guns in America,” Richard Friedman (a professor of clinical psychiatry and director of a psychopharmacology clinic) said that:
only 4 percent of gun deaths annually in the United States can be attributed to individuals with mental illnesses — far lower than most people think. If America could hypothetically solve the problem of mental health issues leading to violence, “you’re likely to see a reduction in suicides, not homicides.”
Most of the people who die as a result of gun violence commit suicide; the majority of suicides are committed by people with mental illnesses, such as depression. According to Jeffrey Swanson (a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences), “federal guidelines preventing individuals with mental illnesses from obtaining firearms are ineffective at preventing violent behavior, particularly mass killings.” What we – people with mental illness and society as a whole – really need is proper mental health care to reduce the number of suicides.
This point is also emphasized in Margot Sanger-Katz’s article, “Why Improving Mental Health Would Do Little to End Gun Violence.” The people with mental illness who are at the highest risk of committing violence against another person 1) are unlikely to use a gun and/or commit murder and 2) typically do so early in the course of their illness, before there is an opportunity to “identify and treat” them (to use Giffords and Kelly’s terminology).
There’s a huge risk that the message Giffords and Kelly are sending will perpetuate the untrue stereotype that people with mental illness are violent and dangerous, increasing the stigma we face. That’s really the last thing we need! Their call to use background checks to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses so we won’t commit heinous crimes only addresses a tiny portion of the problem. I’ve made a series of diagrams to illustrate this point:
There is only a small overlap between people who commit violence against others and people who have mental illnesses. Please note that the relative sizes of the circles do not accurately reflect the relative sizes of these populations.
Of the small percentage of people with mental illnesses who commit violence against others, only a small percentage use a gun to do so.
It is rare for a person with mental illness who commits gun violence to have an official diagnosis. It is even less likely that the individual is receiving – or has ever received – mental health care.
We need society to provide us with better mental health care and better access to mental health care, so we can care for and avoid harming ourselves.
Preventing violence – particularly gun violence – is a whole separate issue. I suggest looking at our cultural values, particularly how violence / gun violence is
portrayed glamorized in mainstream media (TV, news, movies, etc.). Who commits the violence, and against whom? Why? In what contexts? (e.g. gender norms; poverty; age/generational factors; race – including white people; access to education, healthcare, and/or employment; etc.) How can we change society to make it a safer place for everyone?
Maybe the first thing we should look at is the fact that gun ownership is a right, but access to safe, effective, and affordable food, housing, health care, education, employment, and transportation is not!