Image: FlickrGun control featured prominently in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump was vehemently opposed to gun control, making statements like “I feel that the gun-free zones and, you know, when you say that, that’s target practice for the sickos and for the mentally ill,” and “This isn’t a gun problem, this is a mental problem,” Trump said. “It’s not a question of laws, it’s really the people.”. So, what is the evidence? Is he correct?
It seems quite logical that giving guns to people with mental instability is just asking for trouble, and there is little doubt that a degree of competence is required to make the proper assessment of whether a gun should be discharged in the lawful defence of a person. The argument put forward however is more about whether a mentally ill person is more likely to abuse their constitutional right to bear arms in comparison to a person who does not suffer from a mental illness. The statistics do not support the rhetoric.
A 2003 study published in the World Psychiatry journal found that “mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence. The major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and socio-economic factors such as being young, male, and of lower socio-economic status.”. This conclusion was further supported by a 2008 study published in Psychiatry (Edgmont) which concluded “The overall impact of mental illness as a factor in the violence that occurs in society as a whole appears to be overemphasized, possibly intensifying the stigma already surrounding psychiatric disorders. Violence and mental illness are not without connection, however, as they share many biologic and psychosocial aspects.”.
The recurring theme in the studies is psychosocial factors. It is not sufficient to simply correlate instances of a diagnosed mental illness with violent crime, because that ignores the fact that the psychosocial factors affecting many sufferers of mental illness are much more conducive to violence than the psychosocial factors encountered by the general population. The stigma against the mentally ill is strong. People don’t hire anyone with a mental illness, so they live in poverty. If people don’t hire them, they don’t get insurance. If they don’t get insurance, they don’t get treatment. Poverty is a risk factor for mental illness, so not only are they not receiving treatment, they are developing new mental illnesses and worsening the existing ones.
Then there is the issue of violence against the mentally ill. The mentally ill are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. If the reason for not implementing gun controls is to defend against violence, then it would seem more logical to supply the mentally ill with guns than prohibit it.
Statistically violence perpetrated by the mentally ill only occurs at a slightly higher rate than violence by the general population, but the psychosocial factors that influence violent crime encountered by the mentally ill are much more significant. It is of little surprise then that studies have concluded that the stigma against the mentally ill is exaggerated. The phrase “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” comes to mind, because mainstream media does love to jump on a story about violence perpetrated by the mentally ill. Perhaps it is comforting to people, when they can separate things into the “them” and “us”, but comforting or not, it’s still incorrect.
There is one factor however that hasn’t been mentioned so far in this article, and I’ve saved this until last because the statistics are so stark it deserves singling out. Substance abuse. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, the rate of substance use disorders amongst the mentally ill is around 50%, and the relationship goes both ways, mental illness can precipitate or be precipitated by substance us. It’s a staggering figure that leaves little doubt as to the extent of the ineffectiveness of the treatment for mental disorder that is delivered. As staggering as that statistic is however, it pales in comparison to the statistic that 85% of crimes perpetrated by the mentally ill were committed by those with a substance use disorder according to a study by the American Psychiatric Association.
And so in conclusion, guns don’t protect people from the mentally ill. If protection is the goal, then the logical course of action is to take guns off the healthy and give them to the mentally ill, but just controlling guns full stop is obviously the best solution. If the goal is to reduce fear and loathing, then a more practical solution is to examine the causes of violence rather than scapegoating the mentally ill. Any solution to the problem of gun violence needs to examine the causes of crime where substance abuse is a factor, because in the case of crimes by both the healthy and the mentally ill, substance abuse is a recurring theme. The current legal framework around substance abuse stigmatises and marginalises people struggling with addiction, and that doesn’t seem conducive to implementing real, lasting solutions.
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Gun control and the mentally ill
Gun control featured prominently in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump was vehemently opposed to gun control, making statements like “I...