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Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Gun Violence

A candle of hope – photo by Archeia Muriel

Published in ChicagoNow, October 7, 2015

I feel like opening my window and shouting, like Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Another school shooting. Another opportunity for folks like conservative talk show host Joe (Morning Joe) Scarborough and liberal progressive radio host Thom Hartmann to blame mental illness for these tragedies specifically and for gun violence in general.

I expected it from Morning Joe. After all, it’s simpler to call shooters mentally ill than to tackle the real issue of too many guns in the hands of too many people. This week, Scarborough declared gun control impossible. After all, it’s people (especially people with mental illnesses) who kill people. Guns are not to blame.

But when I heard Thom Hartmann declare something to the effect that the parents of shooters who have mental health issues like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or autism shouldn’t let them have guns, I wanted to roll down my car window and start screaming. This is Mental Illness Awareness Week, so let’s become aware of a few things. People with OCD are no more likely than you or me to commit a mass shooting. People with autism are not more prone to violence than the rest of us and less likely to have the ability to plan and carry out such an evil act.

It’s time to stop blaming mental illness for our gun problem. According to Jonathan Metzl, professor of psychiatry, sociology, and medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University,

“People with mental illness are more likely to be victims — not perpetrators — of violence, and…very few violent acts — about 3 to 5 percent — are carried out by the mentally ill.”

The fact that more people blame mental illness than easy access to guns makes me furious. If that were true, wouldn’t we devote much more time and money to treating the mentally ill? Instead, it seems like the trend is to cut services.

Metzl concedes mass shooters are “very often young, white, paranoid men who’ve had histories of depression and possibly sometimes psychosis.” But better predictors of this type of shooting include access to guns, drug use or abuse, and a past history of violence or arrests.

The weekend of September 19-20 in Chicago, eight people were killed and at least 45 were wounded. In the first half of 2015, 216 people were killed with guns. That number includes many innocent kids who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Are the shooters also mentally ill? Do they have OCD or autism? More likely, they are young men with easy access to guns. They live in neighborhoods characterized by violence, poverty, drugs, unemployment, and limited opportunities.

Metzl goes on to say that,

“Mental illness is important, but it becomes a scapegoat. It becomes the one thing we can all agree on — ‘Oh, yeah, it must be crazy people!’ — but I feel compelled to resist that narrative because it gets us off the hook from looking at society, culture, laws, and other things that hit closer to home for people.” [Emphasis mine]

The candle of hope depicted at the top of this blog was in response to the July 27, 2008 shooting at a children’s performance of Annie at a church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Two people were killed and several others wounded. Bet you forgot about that one. I know I did. The shooter was an out-of-work truck driver who targeted the congregation out of hatred for its liberal policies, including its acceptance of gays. He was on the verge of losing his food stamps, but still had 76 rounds of ammunition with him when he entered the church. Was he also mentally ill? Perhaps, but he was also a hate-filled, unemployed man.

Have you forgotten about Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl from Chicago who was killed on January 29, 2013 while hanging out with friends at a park near President Obama’s Chicago residence? If you have perhaps it’s because so many other innocent children in Chicago have been gunned down since then. The two shooters claimed they had made a mistake. They meant to kill members of a rival gang instead. Were they mentally ill? The gunman was an 18-year-old on probation and had a record of unlawfully using a weapon, drug abuse, robbery, and other crimes. That’s a pretty sad life story for someone so young.

Just as I was about to wrap this up, another shooting. Saturday night, an 11-year-old boy killed an 8-year-old neighbor girl with a shotgun because she wouldn’t let him play with her puppy. The gun was in his house and not locked up. So now, this child is charged with first-degree murder. Was the boy mentally ill? Kids claimed he was a bully, so I guess we could blame that. But perhaps having access to the gun played a larger role here.

In an editorial published on October 6, 2015, the Chicago Tribune called for “new ideas to keep guns from dangerous people.” In it, the newspaper suggested that lots of folks should not have access to guns. In addition to the mentally ill, drug users, felons, and “unauthorized foreigners” were singled out. The only way to curb access to guns is to close the gun sale loopholes, have universal background checks, and federal licensing of all gun dealers. The Tribune is hardly a liberal paper but the editorial endorsed Hilary Clinton’s recent proposals, even agreeing with repealing immunity from prosecution for gun manufacturers and banning assault weapons. The editorial urges our leaders (I assume this means Congress) to act now. Ninety percent of Americans agree. And yet, every time I think our representatives might actually do something, they don’t.

So once again, I implore Congress to address the root causes of all of this senseless gun violence. Honor Mental Health Awareness Week by ending the misleading practice of blaming gun violence on mental illness. If we really believed this were true, wouldn’t we devote all of our resources to helping people who are mentally ill? Since that is not going to happen, perhaps some common-sense legislation regarding gun registration, sales, and ownership would keep innocent people safe, whether they live in Sandy Hook or Chicago.


by Laurie Levy
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