Psychiatric policing won’t stop gun violence

March 15, 2018

Keith Rosenthal argues that the focus on how to keep guns away people with mental illness is both a distraction and a perpetuation of the toxic culture fueling gun violence.

PEOPLE ARE sharing around stories about how lax our gun laws are in regard to people with mental illness. In particular, they are criticizing Trump's decision in February 2017 to overturn one of Obama's last executive orders, which placed increased restrictions on the ability of people with mental illnesses to obtain guns.

The argument seems to be that it should be harder or impossible for such people to own guns. This totally misses the point and is a dangerous concession to the notion that a specific subsection of the population should be stripped of certain rights or have liberties taken away that are enjoyed by the rest of the population.

As long as gun ownership remains a constitutional right which U.S. citizens have, there is absolutely no reason why people with mental illness should be stripped of this right. This sets a bad precedent that certain rights do not apply to those with psychological disabilities.

In fact, back when Obama originally signed that executive order in question, it drew widespread criticism from disability rights advocacy groups, including from some of his own appointees to the government's National Council on Disability.

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In essence, what Obama did was make it so that large categories of people who received disability benefits through the Social Security Administration for mental health services would be added to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System--the database used to conduct background checks for firearm sales.

In other words, he made a bold and reactionary step in the direction of criminalizing mental illness itself--and, in particular, criminalizing poor people with mental illness, who are more likely to be dependent on government assistance than their wealthier counterparts.

This is all born of a completely false narrative that mental illness causes mass violence. In fact, countless studies on the subject of mass shootings in particular have shown that mental illness has not been found to be disproportionately present among perpetrators.

If anything is disproportionate among shooters, it is the fact that 95 percent are male and approximately 60 percent are white males, though white males only comprise 31 percent of the overall U.S. population. Additional research has shown a particularly strong link between mass shooters and a history of domestic violence.

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Moreover, insofar as people may use guns in self-defense to protect themselves from genuine threats of violence--be it a spouse abused by a partner (see Marissa Alexander) or a teen victim of rape (see Cyntoia Brown)--people with mental illness, who statistics show are far more likely to be the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence, deserve the exact same rights as everyone else.

IT IS one thing to advocate for a universal reduction in the production, ownership and pervasiveness of guns in U.S. society. But targeting disabled people in general--and those with mental illness in particular--is actually a prejudiced and reactionary form of scapegoating and opportunism.

It is not only a wrong-headed non-solution--it is actually part of the problem of attacking and bullying the vulnerable and marginalized, and blaming them for society's structural and cultural ills.

The National Rifle Association's (NRA) solution is to give police and judges more power to preemptively harass, detain and involuntarily institutionalize people guilty of the ambiguous crime of "being crazy."

This was what the NRA spokesperson, invited to a CNN town hall broadcast, was talking about when she repeated the argument that the U.S. should strengthen enforcement of Florida's "Baker Act." Such "mental health acts" are already on the books in every single state.

As if mass incarceration and policing as a form of social control hasn't already been proven unjust. The fact is that rates of mental illness are disproportionately higher among oppressed and vulnerable populations--LGBTQ youth, people of color and women in poverty. These are the populations that have historically been victimized by psychiatric policing in the U.S.

Psychiatric policing reaches its height in all totalitarian countries. It becomes a stand-in for repression of anyone with non-conforming or non-normative minds. In the case of the violence and guns in America, it is also a gross form of scapegoating.

The NRA wants to blame everyone but itself and a sick culture of violence that pervades American society--a culture which the NRA does more than its fair share to propagate. It's a culture of rampant masculinist misogyny, savage competition of all-against-all in every sphere of life, bloated and hyper-praised police and military forces that form standing armies of aggression in the midst of civil society, and barely concealed generalized hatred along the lines of race, nation, religion, etc.

Gun violence is a social issue, and solutions based on profiling individuals--especially those suffering the oppression of disability--will only make our society more violent.

This comment first appeared in briefer form as posts on Facebook.

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