Crime

Who Is Too Unbalanced to Be Armed?

The danger of treating gun violence as a mental health problem

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The day of Adam Lanza's murderous assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mike Rogers said stricter gun control would not be an appropriate response.  "The more realistic discussion," said the Republican congressman from Michigan, "is how do we target people with mental illness who use firearms?"

Last week another Republican congressman, Howard Coble of North Carolina, agreed that "it's more of a mental health problem than a gun problem right now." And last Friday, when the National Rifle Association broke its silence on the Sandy Hook massacre, the group's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, called for "an active national database of the mentally ill."  

Psychiatrically informed policies aimed at controlling people rather than weapons are popular in the wake of mass shootings, especially among those who rightly worry that gun restrictions will unfairly burden law-abiding Americans while failing to prevent future attacks. Yet treating gun violence as "a mental health problem" presents similar dangers.

An "active national database of the mentally ill" clearly would not have stopped Lanza, who used guns legally purchased by his mother. Even if he had bought the guns himself, it appears he would have passed a background check because he did not meet the criteria for rejection. 

Federal law prohibits gun ownership by anyone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution." Neither seems to have been the case with Lanza.

Acquaintances reported that Lanza 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 misfits, cranks, and oddballs will become violent. "Over thirty years of commentary, judicial opinion, and scientific review argue that predictions of danger lack scientific rigor," notes University of Georgia law professor Alexander Scherr in a 2003 Hastings Law Journal article. "The sharpest critique finds that mental health professionals perform no better than chance at predicting violence, and perhaps perform even worse."

So even if the mental-health criteria for rejecting gun buyers (or for commitment) were expanded, there is little reason to think they could distinguish between future Lanzas and people who pose no threat. Survey data from the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that nearly half of all Americans qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point in their lives. That's a pretty wide 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, Xanax, or Adderall is not enough to disqualify someone from owning a gun, what should the standard be?

Even under current law, mental illness can become a label for unconventional political beliefs. Remember Brandon Raub, the Marine Corps veteran who was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in Virginia last summer based on his conspiracy-minded, anti-government Facebook posts?

The malleability of mental illness was also apparent at a 2007 debate among the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. After seeing a YouTube video in which Jered Townsend of Clio, Michigan, asked about gun control and referred to his rifle as "my baby," Joseph Biden said: "If that's his baby, he needs help….I don't know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I'm being serious."

So perhaps excessive attachment to your guns should be grounds for taking them away. Biden, by the way, is in charge of formulating the policies the Obama administration will pursue in response to Lanza's horrifying crimes.

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  1. After seeing a YouTube video in which Jered Townsend of Clio, Michigan, asked about gun control and referred to his rifle as “my baby,” Joseph Biden said: “If that’s his baby, he needs help?.I don’t know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I’m being serious.”

    By that criteria I know a lot of people Biden would think should lose their cars.

      1. Bah-dah-BUMP!

    1. At least he was being open about it. Those who actually are potentially violent tend to keep their devotion secret.

      1. One of the strongest arguments for the First Amendment is that people who feel free to spout off tend to feel better afterward. Another is that they tend to signal future behavior.
        Quiet people can make me nervous when you can’t tell where they’re going.

        1. [Gazes quietly out window, saying nothing.]

      2. you seem potentially violent.

    2. Biden. Mental qualifications. Stuff people in glass houses should not do. ‘Nuff said.

      1. People in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones?

  2. “Mental health control” is as ignorant approach as is gun control! As a Life Member, I assert that about all one can count on from the NRA as far as solutions go is a regurgitation of the Republican party line – or at best a “more government”, “law and order” type of solution. We need to start promoting responses from thoughtful activists who are more in tune with grassroots sentiments. I recommend Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, Inc. and Gun Owners of America.

    1. I’ll be joining GOA this year instead of the NRA.

      1. Yeah, Wayne LaPierre can kiss my ass with his big-government solutions.

  3. Holy hell, it’s like good intentions don’t count for shit anymore!

  4. Even under current law, mental illness can become a label for unconventional political beliefs.

    Well, duh! The only reason anyone could disagree with the liberal progressive left is that they are mentally ill!

    1. I think Dr. Ablow from Fox once declared that liberals are insane because they don’t accept personal responsibility and want the government to take care of them from cradle to grave, or something like that. He also said that Biden’s behavior during the VP debate (like his excessive laughter) indicated dementia and possibly alcoholism.

        1. That dude sounds paranoid.

          1. You should give his radio show a listen. Dude is full-blown unhinged, but in an entertaining way.

            1. I used to think he was bonkers. I’m not so sure anymore.

    2. In the old Soviet Union, the mental hospitals were full of people that spoke out in opposition to the government. Sounds like the criteria our government would like.

  5. “The more realistic discussion,” said the Republican congressman from Michigan, “is how do we target people with mental illness who use firearms?”

    You’re trying to get someone killed, aren’t you Mr Rogers?

    Wayne LaPierre, called for “an active national database of the mentally ill.”

    That’s just crazy.

    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, Xanax, or Adderall is not enough to disqualify someone from owning a gun, what should the standard be?

    That might be just crazy enough to work.

  6. Everyone.

  7. an active national database of the mentally ill.

    That should scare the bejesus(sp) out of every red blooded american.

  8. Sounds like a pretty solid plan to me dude. Wow.

    http://www.Anon-is.tk

  9. Even though I’m a libertarian, I’m also grounded in reality. Some people are not mentally competent to make their own decisions – usually the very young, the very old and demented, the severely cognitively disabled and the severely mentally ill. It is consistent with libertarian principles for society to make the decisions for these mentally incompetent individuals. It can be a difficult matter since we are dealing with individual liberty. But current policy elevates the rights of the insane above the sane. People seem to have a right to be mentally ill to the point where they are not only completely dysfunctional – suffering and a burden to society – but also severely disruptive or even terrorizing to those around them.

    Those who must deal with the insane are usually powerless in doing so. It is virtually impossible to involuntarily treat or commit people, no matter how disturbingly irrational, until they pose an extremely obvious threat to themselves or others. By then, it is often too late. By then, those around them have been through hell – or worse, they’re dead.

    We do need better laws that better recognize when somebody is not competent to make their own decisions and that facilitate others in making decisions for them. It is the only appropriate humanitarian and libertarian solution.

    1. And how exactly do you tell the difference between someone who is not competent to make his own decisions and someone who simply makes different decisions than you would?

      1. There are well established neuropsychiatric tests. They’re used quite often but not often enough.

        Tests determine if somebody is aware of objective reality (orientation, what planet are we on, etc.) They also test whether somebody is rational – for instance, it is rational to believe you need to eat to survive but irrational to believe otherwise.

        The barriers to appropriately evaluating someone’s competence seem to be two fold. First of all, it’s cumbersome and/or impossible to force an evaluation. Secondly, the bar for rationality may be set too low.

        I’m not an expert on the issue but I am an emergency physician who sees mentally incompetent but independent people on a daily basis. These people are usually noncompliant with treatment and both dysfunctional and destitute. I’m also familiar with this problem on a personal level.

        1. The barriers to appropriately evaluating someone’s competence seem to be two fold. First of all, it’s cumbersome and/or impossible to force an evaluation. Secondly, the bar for rationality may be set too low.

          So, let me get this straight. You don’t want it to be difficult for the state to forcefully confine people?

          1. Even though I’m a libertarian …

            You’re not a libertarian. You’re a fascist. You’re on the wrong website.

    2. There’s a very real difference between incompetent/incapacitated and insane. The two categories overlap of course, but they are by no means synonymous.

      The trick with these mass shooters is that they are obviously not incompetent/incapacitated. They are able to get through daily life reasonably well, and are capable of planning and carrying out, well, a mass shooting.

      1. Yeah, and how do you devise a test for Evil?

        1. Did you vote for either Obama or Romney?

    3. You’re NOT a libertarian, and (therefore) you’re NOT grounded in reality.

  10. So…, let’s go ahead and pretend that we live in an alternate universe where a policy of arbitrarily labeling people mentally ill effectively reduces gun violence and respects citizens’ second amendment rights. Wouldn’t the policy give the mentally ill yet another reason to not seek diagnoses and treatment?

    1. The diagnosis of the mentally ill is not “arbitrary.”

      Yes, a more aggressive policy towards the mentally incompetent/insane might deter seeking mental health treatment. I think the focus should be on the severely mentally ill – which by all accounts seems to include these mass murderers. In those cases, it is typically obvious to those around them that they are extremely mentally ill. The minimal reports on the Newtown shooter seem to portray just such a picture of extreme mental illness. Those who come in contact with such a person should be empowered to force a mental health evaluation and court-ordered treatment should be expedited if indicated.

      There was a good WSJ article today on the need for further study on the issue of mass murders or murder-suicides including a detailed forensic analysis of the mental health of perpetrators. This might enhance our ability of identifying those most at risk of mass murder or murder-suicide.

      I think there are two separate issues here – our society’s handling of the gravely mentally ill who often end up either homeless or imprisoned and also society’s responsibility for protecting others from the murder and other mayhem they may commit.

      1. Yeah, except none of these mass murderers had ever been committed anywhere or been proven mentally ill or incompetent by a doctor.

        Loughner wasn’t, James Holmes wasn’t and Adam Lanza wasn’t. They’d all had warning signs, sure, but not a one was ever diagnosed with anything more serious than Aspergers.

        The reason people can’t be committed against their will anymore is because the ACLU put a stop to that specifically because it was being abused and was harming the civil liberties of people who were in no way dangerous.

        If you can’t commit people against their will and none of these guys had been diagnosed with any serious mental illness, then how would a database or any other restriction on the ‘mentally ill’ make any difference?

        1. That’s exactly my point – the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

          These mass murderers were clearly seriously mentally ill and even a casual look at their history suggests that this was obvious to those around them. The reason they weren’t diagnosed as such isn’t because it can’t be easily done but because we’ve erected too many barriers to doing so.

          Before we start talking about any “restrictions,” the first step is making the diagnosis and forcible treatment of the seriously mentally ill significantly easier.

          I know this is anathema to most libertarians but I would suggest that any other approach is not reality-based libertarianism. Any other approach could even be regarded as anti-libertarian. Like it or not, some people are so mentally ill/incompetent that they cannot make many of their own decisions. Giving them the freedom to do so actually cripples their overall freedom to live in dignity and seriously damages or destroys the freedom of others.

          There are risks to such an approach but there are risks with having cops and a justice system. But we need them to enforce the law and protect our liberties.

          1. The current mental health laws were/are not a policy choice. The Supreme Court ruled on the minimum necessary showing under 14th amendment due process before any government – local, state, federal – can deprive someone of liberty. There is no “making it easier”; due process *minimally* requires a showing of imminent dangerousness to self or others for involuntary confinement and other showings for involuntary drugging – habeas corpus requires clear and convincing evidence of the same. This rule is too permissive? Show me where this rule failed, where any of these perps breezed through. They didn’t. The rule was simply not brought to bear. Even with getting 72 hours essentially free of due process requirement. So, what Constitutional amendment do you propose?

            You’re not a libertarian. There is no individual, positive entitlement to safety in the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. There’s an enumerated fed power to provide for the common defense; there’s a residual “police power” of the states to legislate, but always subject to the limitations of the federal constitution. Your liberty interest in being free from violence is not a positive entitlement for the government to act on your behalf – you have a remedy in the criminal and civil systems, but not prophylaxis. So, additionally, what “right”, what “civil liberties” are you talking about in this hypothetical balancing test between your civil liberties and the civil liberties of the ‘mentally ill’?

            1. I fuckin’ love you, man!

            2. The first part is informative.

              The second part is, is to put it politely, incoherent.

              There’s no “individual, positive entitlement to safety?” By what f’ing insane logic? So people have no f’ing rights in your parallel universe of the USA? In your imaginary world, people can be murdered, robbed and terrorized without limit because they have no “individual, positive entitlement to safety.” That’s f’ing insane!

              I suspect my ideas are personally threatening due to your own insanity.

              You are a pseudo-libertarian anarchist and the exact reason why non-libertarians think all libertarians are whackjobs.

              1. There are no positive rights whatsoever. Anyone who believes there are is either an idiot or an asshole.

      2. “The diagnosis of the mentally ill is not “arbitrary.”

        Yes it is

  11. We’ve got basically three proposals on the table:

    (1) Try to confiscate every firearm in America, except those used by armed agents of the state. Cost: vast. Effectiveness: low.

    (2) Try to identify every person with a psychological predisposition to violence and strip them of their civil rights. Cost: vast. Effectiveness: low.

    (3) Allow adults to exercise their human right to defend themselves and others from violence. Cost: low. Effectiveness: probably quite good, given our experience with violent crime, mass shootings, and gun ownership.

    This really doesn’t seem like rocket surgery to me.

    1. Let’s take at look at these again:

      1) I agree. It’s also unlikely to be successful. There are a huge number of guns already out there. Attempts to limit the influx of illegal guns have had very poor results. And efforts to limit legal guns will likely only result in only criminals being armed.

      2) I disagree since this a poorly worded option. The correct option would be to identify those who are seriously mentally ill or incompetent and remove barriers to involuntary and voluntary treatment. We wouldn’t remove all their civil rights – just their weaponry which endangers the rights of others. This approach will definitely yield some benefits but is not a panacea and can be abused.

      3)This can be combined with option 2) and is not exclusive. I would only add the modifier “mentally competent and sane adults.”

      I would add 4) sensible low cost security measures

      We can’t eliminate mass shootings but we can do better than our current approach which is basically NOTHING.

      1. Remove barriers to involuntary treatment? How low are you willing to make those barriers? I also like that you say ‘we wouldn’t remove all their civil rights’ when you’re talking about forcing people who have committed no crime to be held against their will in psychiatric hospitals.

        Somehow, that strikes me as ‘anti-civil rights,’ so you’re hardly just taking away their right to weaponry. You’re taking away their right to freedom itself.

        1. Seriously? Do you have any understanding of mental illness?

          Yeah, you’re right let them be free to be insane. Screw everybody else. Let them be free to die a slow death on the streets or to kill, maim and terrorize everybody else. Any other approach would be “anti-civil rights.” Yeah, that’s f’ing brilliant.

          1. Is mental illness a crime? no

            Is mental illness unfortunate? yes

            Are the mentally ill “free to kill, maim and terorize everybody else”? no

      2. Oh, second problem. The person in this case stole his mother’s guns. Should we not allow anyone who is related to anyone on these lists to have firearms either? I mean what’s the point if they can just steal from a family member?

      3. We can’t eliminate mass shootings but we can do better than our current approach which is basically NOTHING.

        What do you mean “we”? (see youtube: Doug Stanhope “On Nationalism”)

        Ahh, the eternal hope of the iatrogenic interventionist. “If ‘we’ could just….”

        We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We, We.

        Fuck that.
        Keep.
        Your.
        Fucking.
        Hands.
        Off!

  12. Who Is Too Unbalanced to Be Armed?

    MARK LEVIN

  13. “it appears he would have passed a background check because he did not meet the criteria for rejection.”

    Matter of fact it was reported that he attempted to purchase ( locally ) a long gun himself….but was rejected…because he failed the background check…as I understand it. So Connecticut’s laws were effective.

    1. As I have heard it, he refused the background check. I don’t know why. He probably didn’t want to wait.

  14. If loving a fundamental human right more than most constitutes valid grounds to strip that right away, great! We could strip career politicians of their right to run for office, and cure both abuse of power and easily corrupted personalities in one fell swoop!

  15. I usually skeptical of people who claim to be an “expert” on something, especially when their argument to a legitimate question is something like, “you wouldn’t understand you’re not a (fill in the blank).” Has anyone ever been to a school board meeting where they want some new levy passed, and when an audience members asks why they need more money for X they say the very same thing? Sometimes professionals are too close to a situation and want a solution to a problem (mental illness) and are willing to accomplish it by any means neccessary. I think it’s good to have “non-professionals” ask the obvious but crucial questions.

    mentall illness isn’t a crime, and I don’t believe a mentally ill personal commmitting a crime is any less/more wrong that a mentally competent person committing a crime.

    If mental illness was declared a crime it seems like that would be a path to euthanasia

  16. The malleability of mental illness was also apparent at a 2007 debate among the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. After seeing a YouTube video in which Jered Townsend of Clio, Michigan, asked about gun control and referred to his rifle as “my baby,” Joseph Biden said: “If that’s his baby, he needs help?.I don’t know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I’m being serious.”I agree with you
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