Guns and “Mental Illness”

March 27, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I think it may have started with Wayne LaPierre’s infamous press conference a week after Sandy Hook. In any case, we now here it as a common refrain of the no-holds-barred gun crowd – that the big problem is inadequate enforcement in keeping high-powered weapons out of the hands of the “mentally ill,” since obviously it is the “mentally ill” who perpetrate the mass killings of the type seen in Sandy Hook, Aurora, and dozens of other places around the country. In short, we ought all unite together to make sure no one with “mental illness” has easy access to these high powered weapons, but let them remain freely available for others.

In my view, even apart from the further stigmatization of mental illness this would entail, the policy itself is mind-bogglingly naive.

In the first place, “mental illness” is not a clearly definable condition. Other than a few very rare organic brain disorders, “mental illness” must be diagnosed on the basis of behavior. Therefore, in effect, supporters of this idea are advocating policies that would seek to proscribe allowing high powered weapons getting into the hands of people who have NOT YET behaved in such a way that we would diagnose them as killers.

Oh, but isn’t it true that with just about every person who has perpetrated mass killing people report that the suspect exhibited all sorts of strange and anti-social behavior long before the fact? Of course. But notice that we can only know that all of those behaviors we later recognize as strange and antisocial were actually “leading up to something” AFTER they have led up to something, that is, in retrospect. Thousands upon thousands of people display the same or similar behaviors and remain perfectly harmless.

Are advocates of such policies really saying they want us all to unite prophylactically to keep high powered weapons out of the hands of those many thousands who have been reported to exhibit strange and antisocial behaviors? Given that this would doubtlessly include many hundreds, if not thousands, of NRA members themselves, I rather doubt it.

But, taking them at their word, the complications have only just begun. Let us imagine we have the resources to seriously investigate each case of reportedly strange and antisocial behavior. Whom would we then trust to assess the investigations and decide if that person should be proscribed from gun ownership, and to have weapons in their possession confiscated? Would we trust that kind of power and wisdom to government officials? To mental health experts? To teachers? To police? To judges and lawyers?

Advocates of this approach should ask themselves whom they would trust enough for this assignment, for holding that degree of power over others, potentially including themselves?

I can only conclude that Wayne LaPierre and his followers have not even taken the first step in truly thinking through the implications of what they are advocating. Having it their way, we would very quickly find ourselves defending completely irrational interpretations of “2d Amendment Rights” by totally trampling on 1st Amendment, 4th Amendment and 5th Amendment Rights, creating veritable police state conditions, at best, as our “weapon against weapons.”

A much more reasonable, sensible and workable solution is to cool off a bit and then, with full acknowledgment of the 2d Amendment and the history of its interpretation in our laws and in our courts, begin the process of examining what weapons it make sense for civilians to have in private hands and what weapons it makes absolutely no sense for civilians to have in private hands (though these might still be “owned” by private citizens and accessible in controlled circumstances such as on regulated gun club target ranges.) In the meantime, as I have said in a previous posting, we could impose significant ammunition surcharges and heavy taxation on the weapons manufacturers designated to meaningfully compensate for the undeniable damage to society that all-but-unregulated weapons impose on all the rest of us on a daily basis, similar to tobacco and alcohol taxes designated for cancer care and treatment of victims of drunk drivers.



  1. Dunno about this, i would say that the issue of gun ownership in the US should be framed in a wholely cultural sense, in that the 2nd amendment needs to be seen as a *bad idea* and offloaded from the culture. As I’ve said before the entire national identity of what it means to be American (in terms of afforded “amendments” etc) is hyper-idealised and uncanny isn’t it that its also infused with divine provenance?

    Just a plain bad idea, a mistake in history – like loads of other things.

  2. […”we could impose significant ammunition surcharges and heavy taxation on the weapons manufacturers designated to meaningfully compensate for the undeniable damage to society”…]

    Absolutely not going to happen. There is nothing people in America don’t know about guns and how dangerous having 250 million of them floating around is. Tobacco and alcohol were always considered vices by a sizable percentage of the population. Taxing vices is easy. Guns were never, and never will be considered vices. Taxing what is considered a right to any meaningful degree, no matter how much damage guns cause, can’t be done and won’t be done. Besides, the same people who consider alcohol and tobacco vices consider owning lots of firearms a virtue.

    You are right about the idea of picking the “mentally ill” out of the population being mind-bogglingly naive. So, on all fronts, for the most part, we are all shit out of luck… as they say.

  3. [“In the first place, “mental illness” is not a clearly definable condition. Other than a few very rare organic brain disorders, “mental illness” must be diagnosed on the basis of behavior.”]

    I am a psychologist, and I approve of this message. Though we must also note that the diagnostic labels we give are of our own invention and are created not through scientific discovery, but by professional votes and general consensus. In short, we’re just as crazy as the rest of you, so please, do not trust me or any of my colleagues to asses who is ‘mentally fit’ to carry a gun. That would not be a smart thing to do.

    I agree with smashy’s comments, though of course changing culture from the inside out is a very difficult thing to do.

    • What with all the new scientific advances in the study of the human brain, I have doubts with regard to the future of the profession of psychology.

  4. Reblogged this on Skip Conover.

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