As usual in the wake of mass shootings, the alternative to ill-conceived, liberty-limiting gun control measures seems to be ill-conceived, liberty-limiting "mental health" measures. Instead of talking about new gun laws, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said the day of Adam Lanza's murderous assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School, "the more realistic discussion is, how do we target people with mental illness who use firearms?" Yesterday Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) told The New York Times, "I think it's more of a mental health problem than a gun problem right now."
But why choose? Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) did not rule out new gun restrictions but added, "Our country must also grapple with difficult questions about the identification and care of individuals with mental illnesses." And President Obama, while calling for gun control measures such as a new federal ban on "assault weapons," also supports "better access to mental health services" and "tighter restrictions to bar mentally unstable people from buying weapons" (as the Times puts it).
The most complete psychiatric diagnosis of Lanza I've seen so far is based on reports from several acquaintainces that he might have had Asperger syndrome. That label, which soon won't even count as a mental disorder anymore, is not much more informative than saying he was a shy, socially inept loner (which people who knew him also said). It seems safe to assume that someone who murders randomly selected first-graders is psychologically abnormal, but that is not the same as saying that a specific "mental illness" explains his behavior. Given the subjective, amorphous nature of psychiatric diagnoses, we might as well say the devil made him do it. In any event, mental health professionals are notoriously bad at predicting which of the world's many cranks, misfits, and oddballs will become violent. That means forcibly treating people who resemble the pre-massacre Lanza, which is what "better access to mental health services" would mean in practice for relacitrant "patients," would be ineffective as well as unjust.
Likewise "tighter restrictions to bar mentally unstable people from buying weapons." Federal law currently bans gun ownership by anyone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution" (along with anyone who smokes pot or uses someone else's prescription drug, thereby qualifying as "an unlawful user" of "any controlled substance"). At this point it does not look like Lanza fell into either of those categories, and in any case the guns he used belonged to his mother. But let's say the aim is to stop people like Lanza from buying guns on their own. If so, the disqualifying criteria will have to be expanded. I have heard a lot of loose talk about barring "people with mental illnesses" from buying guns. Considering that close to half of all Americans may qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point in their lives, that is quite a large dragnet. Should half of us lose our Second Amendment rights, at least for the duration of whatever mental disorder (depression, anxiety, addiction, inattentiveness, etc.) afflicts us?
Assuming a prescription for Prozac or Xanax is not enough to disqualify someone from owning a gun, what should the criteria be? One possibility is suggested by Joe Biden's response to a question about gun control during a 2007 debate with the other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. In a video submitted via YouTube, Jered Townsend of Clio, Michigan, said: "Tell me your position on gun control. Myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe." Holding up a military-style rifle of the sort that Biden worked to ban as a senator, Townsend said, "This is my baby." Biden's reaction (which you can see in the video at the bottom of this post) was telling:
If that's his baby, he needs help. I think he just made an admission against self-interest. I don't know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I'm being serious....I'm the guy who originally wrote the assault weapons ban....We should be working with law enforcement right now to make sure that we protect people against people who...are not capable of knowing what to do with a gun because they're either mentally unbalanced and/or they have a criminal record....I hope he [Townsend] doesn't come looking for me.
Although Biden's initial reply to Townsend drew laughter from the audience, the notion that he was not being serious is belied by his insistence that "I'm being serious." So here is one possibility: People who are excessively attached to their guns should not be allowed to own them. Did I mention that Biden is the guy Obama has put in charge of formulating the policies the administration will pursue in response to Lanza's horrifying crimes?
Combine Biden's suggestion that gun enthusiasts are mentally unbalanced by definition with the stark partisan differences in gun ownership, and this talk about mental health assumes a distinctly political aspect. One need not reach back to the Soviet Union or across the world to modern-day China for examples of how psychiatry can be used as a cover for punishing and repressing people with offensive beliefs. Brandon Raub, for instance, seems like just the sort of guy whom Joe Biden would not trust with a gun.
Now we are approaching the territory of a column I wrote a few months ago, following Wade Page's attack on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. I thought the idea of "An Ideological Test for Gun Ownership" was patently absurd, but I received a lot of email from people who took it seriously, which is testament either to my weak skills as a satirist or to the amazingly shallow level of "do something" political discourse in this country. Maybe both. Reassuringly, almost every reader who thought I was seriously proposing that people should lose their Second Amendment rights if they exercise their First Amendment rights in a way the government does not like was appalled at the idea. But those were just the people who took the trouble to write (or call). I am beginning to suspect that sample may have been biased.