Gun Control

Gun Grab Against "Mentally Ill" Won't Make Us Safer, But Will Make Laws Even More Arbitrary


After mass shootings, gun-control proponents and lawmakers are always quick to say we need to keep weapons out of the hands of the "mentally ill" and that better policies would identify people who were likely to snap and start killing people.

The real world—not to mention the Constitution—stands athwart fantasies of precognition. If you want to get a sense of how seemingly common-sensical restrictions on the rights of mentally ill people play out, check out this Reason TV video, which originally went live on November 18, 2013.

Here's the original writeup:

In the wake of any mass shooting, there's a predictable and justified burst of public outrage and sorrow followed by a series of do-something legislative proposals meant to prevent similar tragedies from ever occurring again.

Depending on the political leanings of the politician or media figure offering the solution, the proposal often rests upon one of these twin assumptions: We must rid the world of the wrong kinds of weapons (i.e., "assault weapons"), or, we must keep guns away from the wrong kinds of people (i.e., "crazy people").  

"How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark?" asked Wayne LaPierre, official lightning rod of the National Rifle Association, in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary shooting. "A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?"

Even the nation's premier gun lobby believes keeping guns away from the mentally ill is a good idea. It's a sensible-sounding proposal, a logical precaution. But some forensic psychiatrists, whose jobs include the task of identifying potentially violent individuals, say that targeting the mentally ill isn't as simple as it sounds.

recent Mayo Clinic study points out that mass shooters tend to meticulously plan their crimes weeks or months in advance, undermining the idea that the mentally ill simply "snap" and go on shooting rampages while also complicating the notion of effective gun control through gun registries, since a methodical planner has plenty of time to obtain weapons through illegal channels.

Take Lynette Phillips, a suburban California housewife who suffers from anxiety disorder. She encountered the APPS after a trip to Aurora Charter Oak Hospital's psych ward resulted in her involuntary commitment. Phillips claims she voluntarily checked herself into the hospital after a bad reaction to a new medication and that the involuntary commitment was an error made by an overzealous nurse. Representatives from Aurora Charter Oak declined to comment on the story, but she was released before the full 72-hour hold, and a letter from Phillips' personal psychiatristconfirms some of the details in her version of events, including the fact that she sought treatment herself.

A more basic problem with a strategy that targets mentally ill people is that the vast majority of them are not violent. When you control for substance abuse, a factor that exacerbates violence in all populations, only about 4.3% of people with a "severe" mental illness are likely to commit any sort of violence, according to a University of Chicago study. The violence rate among those with a "non-severe" mental illness is about equal to that of the "normal" population.

"In the absence of a history of violence or any of the other risk factors, it is impossible to predict who will become violent," says Stephen K. Hoge, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University. "If we put doctors in the position of acting on behalf of the government or acting on behalf of social control, then that undermines the therapeutic mission."

In other words, by targeting and stigmatizing the mentally ill, especially in the absence of a coherent risk-identification strategy, the effect may be to discourage people who need help from seeking it, while also stripping away the rights of a huge group of people who will likely never commit a violent act.

California is the vanguard of the gun registry movement in the U.S. The Attorney General's office maintains a database called the "Armed Prohibited Persons System" (APPS), which identifies three groups of people whose guns should be confiscated: Individuals with a documented history of violence, convicted felons/wanted persons, and people with a "severe mental illness," as defined by the state. Lumping the broad category of "mentally ill people" in with criminals and violent abusers can ensnare innocent and seemingly harmless individuals in an overly expansive dragnet.

But the involuntary commitment was enough to put Phillips on the government radar and make her an Armed Prohibited Person. A few days after she returned home, armed officers from the California Department of Justice entered her house in order to confiscate a gun she'd purchased as a gift for her husband. Upon finding more than one firearm in the house, the agents took all of the Phillips' guns and ammunition. They had no warrant. The CA DOJ would not comment on this story.

"They didn't need to do that," says Lynette's husband, David, who described a scene in which the officers spread all of their guns and ammunition on the front yard as the neighborhood watched. "They embarrassed us in front of the neighbors."

The Phillips have no criminal record, history of violence, or documented substance abuse problems. But it was only with the help of an attorney that they were able to get their guns back from the state after several months of effort, and only under the condition that David keep the guns in a safe that's inaccessible to Lynette. They did not return any of the seized ammo.

The Phillips have vowed never to let government agents into their home without a warrant again, and Lynette remains shaken by the experience. Since its inception in 2001, the APPS program has resulted in the seizure of more than 11,000 guns.

"To the extent that society continues to vilify the mentally ill and scapegoat them as the primary cause of gun violence, is a major step backward," says Hoge.

Watch the Reason TV video above, "The Truth About Mental Illness and Guns," to hear more about flawed gun control policies and for the full story behind the Phillips' gun confiscation experience. 

Approximately 7:30 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Shot by Tracy Oppenheimer, Will Neff, and Weissmueller.

Go here for more links, downloadable versions, and videos.

NEXT: Jon Utley on Terrorism and Panicked Responses to Radiation

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  1. The problem is that the people some would put in charge of making laws identifying which allegedly mentally ill people should have their rights abrogated are statist POLITICIANS, who are arguably the most mentally ill among us on average.

    1. Kind of like the “Which Philip Dick story are we living today” thread, where I would nominate the story where the androids who thought they were human wanted to kill the humans who failed the androids test for human behavior.

      1. Mental Health is the avenue to gun confiscation….it worked for the Nazis..

        Politicians and Media push gun control in a dangerous and dishonest manner..

        Would they disarm law abiding citizens diagnosed with anxiety, or depression, how about ADHD!! Where would it end for these people..

        300,000,000 prescriptions written for psychiatric medication in 2009 alone..…..tally-ill/

    2. In fairness, mass shooters are correlated with mental illness or other signs of mental stress. But then, mass shooters are also correlated with Left wing positions and statements.

      Some folks make a connection between those things; but they’re certifiable.

  2. Gun Grab Against “Mentally Ill” Won’t Make Us Safer, But Will Laws Even More Arbitrary

    Reason needs someone on staff who is just an absolute grammar Nazi; the type of person who will sneer with contempt at every misplaced comma.

    You’ve clearly shown that, when left to your own devices, you can’t be bothered to proof read.

    This is the title of the article for God’s sake. How hard is it to look at the title and make sure that it’s grammatically correct?

    1. Grammar Nazism is categorized as a sociopathic disorder with misanthropic tendencies and a likelihood of committing violence. Please step outside while your house is searched for contraband.

  3. The mentally ill are a politically powerless minority.

    It would be politically easy to round them all up and forcibly euthanize them. Maybe even give the program a cool name like “T4”.

    1. +1 Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care

    2. To be fair the T4 program was the one Nazi initiative where widespread public outcry forced Hitler to quietly cancel the public phase and keep the rest going quietly.

      There far too many people in this country who would be appalled at euthanizing the mentally ill or sick. Efforts to do so would have to be secret.

      1. There far too many people in this country who would be appalled at euthanizing the mentally ill or sick. Efforts to do so would have to be secret.

        There does seem to be increasing tolerance to re-open state-run mental institutions and reinstate the ability of states to forcibly commit people absent actual criminality. This is showing up on both the left and the right. Lefties are arguing for increased mental health spending (which can only translate to going back to state asylum approach that brought us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and righties are arguing for increased latitude for civil commitment of mentally ill.

      2. Though it is hardly euthanasia, it’s still a prospect that should terrify us.

        I honestly don’t see euthanasia being popular ever. It had its advocates among the progs in the U.S. when the Nazis were doing it, but state murder of “defective” peoples has basically always been a non-starter to the American people.

      3. Just reading through the wiki article on that, you are reminded of the chilling reality: humans are capable of thoughts such as these:

        Himmler said: “If operation T4 had been entrusted to the SS, things would have happened differently”, because “when the F?hrer entrusts us with a job, we know how to deal with it correctly, without causing useless uproar among the people.”

    3. At first, I thought T4 was a Terminator sequel.

  4. How hard is it to look at the title and make sure that it’s grammatically correct?

    I’d settle for something like an expression of a coherent thought.

    “But Will Laws Even More Arbitrary”! What the fuck is that even supposed to mean?

    1. He clearly meant ‘but will make laws even more arbitrary.’ I just don’t know how you write a title of an article and just leave out a word.

      1. I’m just going to assume reason writers are drunk and/or stoned most of the time. Then it all makes sense.

      2. I suppose you can rationalize it in a Kessel Run sort of way as:

        Gun Grab Against “Mentally Ill” Won’t Make Us Safer, But Will Laws Even More Arbitrary [Make Us Safer?]

    2. They accidentally the whole thing.

  5. In New Jersey a law was recently enacted prohibiting people on the “Terrorist Watch List” from buying guns. People put on this list by law enforcement fiat aren’t necessarily dangerous–just people who they should take a close look at. N.J. already required background checks to buy a gun, which I would expect included checking the Watch List and conducting further evaluations. The new law does have an out. A person denied a permit because of being on the List can ask a state judge to order the permit to be issued anyway. But considering it is against Federal law to tell anyone they are on the list this provision is useless.

    1. You know, its *not* illegal to tell people you’re on the ‘terrorist watch list’?

      That’s how we know it exists in the first place – people were denied permission to travel by air and kicked up a fuss about it.

      It is illegal to tell anyone you’ve received a class of NSL – but those are *subpoenas* requiring you to turn over materials or documentation and are usually served on businesses catering to the needs of ‘suspicious’ people and rarely (if ever) served on the subject of an investigation himself.

  6. Maybe the botched title is an encrypted communique from the entity known as ‘The Jacket’?

    /conspiracy theory

    1. Trigger skynet to start operations by a carefully crafted blog title lacking a verb.

      1. Its a test – Skynet is seeing how much distraction it can cause.

        When the balloon goes up, NORAD will be busy arguing over the grammar in some Buzzfeed posting and be completely oblivious to the pre-launch monkey-business until its too late.

  7. I don’t know how yuo can strip anyone of a Constitutionally guaranteed right without due process, preferably a criminal conviction, of some kind.

    1. In PA a 302 (involuntary commitment) can permanently bar you from firearm ownership. Of course, you can hire an attourney and get it reversed for $10Gs. Maybe.

      Now, mind you, anyone (fucking anyone) can have you 302’d. And it’s not a long thing, just a 72 hr observation.

      I have read many horror stories on boards of people trying to buy a hunting rifle and led into a kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy in attempting to get their rights back. All because they said something at school as a kid, or smoked pot and their parents committed them.

      Another thing that happens is that people get depressed, decide to seek help and when they admit themselves the hospital uses a 302 form instead of the more appropriate 201 form. Usually because the 302 forms are handy and the 210s are in a drawer somewhere. No fucking around, this actually is really common.

      See also: domestic violence. Which is anytime two people related or cohabitating are charged after cops come to an altercation. Which could be you arguing with your brother in the yard and a poop-the-bed- type neighbor calling the cops on you.

      Bottom line is: don’t involve yourself

      1. Woops…

        Bottom line is: don’t involve yourself with the police or doctors unless you’re near death, ever. Ever. Ever.

    2. By making such declarations technically appealable through an unreliable, cumbersome process?

  8. No Laws involving Murder Tools will ever help.

    If we are going to have them, and if we will continue to have companies profit off of these murder tools, and we see no moral hazard in this, then just get rid of all of the laws concerning them.

    I believe the vast majority of murder and crimes are committed with un-registered (though I don’t know for a fact).

    The registration process is completely silly and in-effective.
    And, it doesn’t look like we’ll be convincing fellow Americans in any positive way. So, just let everyone have guns.

    Go ahead and eliminate the age restrictions because they teens will get the guns anyway.

    In the Connecticut matter, in which a woman’s retard went and killed the woman and 23kids, the gun wasn’t registered to him.

    1. …just get rid of all of the laws concerning them.

      First sensible thing you’ve said, Alice.

    2. I believe the vast majority of murder and crimes are committed with un-registered (though I don’t know for a fact).

      Depending on the study, 75% to 85%of murders are committed by people with felony records.

      Felons are prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms. Because of that, under Haynes V U.S., felons cannot be prosecuted for possession of an unregistered firearm, as the act of registering it would be self-incriminatory, and a violation of their rights.

      They can, of course, be prosecuted for possession of any firearm, and the penalty is 10 years in federal prison.

      So you are quite correct, most crimes committed with a gun are committed with one that is unregistered, or not registered to the criminal.

  9. targeting the mentally ill isn’t as simple as it sounds.

    Word. Those crazy fuckers hop around like nobody’s business!

  10. “…a woman’s retard…”

    Wow, you sure are nice.

    1. Alice is just sugarcoating it for you.

  11. A person that is adjudicated mentally ill because they are a danger to themselves or others should not be allowed to purchase guns.

    This a very small percentage of the mentally ill.

    Nick Gillespie is painting with a broad brush here.

    1. Nick Gillespie is painting with a broad brush here.

      Not really. It’s the same with felons. If at some point that person is deemed mentally fit enough to care for themselves their rights should be reinstated. The problem is that both felons and mental defectives are permanently barred from firearms ownership.

      The lower barrier of what constitutes a mental defective is also pretty damned low in a lot of states. Simply being put on a 72-hour hold and being released is enough to be barred from firearms ownership. That isn’t the same as an adjudication.

      The same can happen to people who voluntarily seek treatment.

      It’s a far broader problem affecting many, many more people than just those who have been determined in a court to be an actual danger.

  12. But, but, but… Big Data. It’s already putting an end to the Knockout Game. In fact, it predicted it. We just didn’t listen.

  13. Sometimes man you jsut have o roll with the punches.

  14. People too violently mentally ill to be trusted with a firearm cannot be trusted without one. If a person intends to shoot and kill people, it isn’t the gun that needs locked up.

    That said, if I was a mental health professional I’d take one look at the “sexual predator” databases and fight tooth and nail to keep government list-makers away from my clients.

  15. Mental health is the avenue to gun confiscation…it worked for the Nazis..

    Politicians and Media push gun control in a dangerous and dishonest manner…..ntally-ill

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