Who Is Too Unbalanced to Be Armed?

The danger of treating gun violence as a mental health problem


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.