Don't Disarm the Mentally Ill

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The school shooting in Connecticut last week has provoked a slew of hysterical calls for gun control in the United States. Big surprise, I know. What makes the calls for "regulation" and "sensible gun laws" somewhat unique this time around is the focus on mental illness. The fact that the Connecticut shooter is alleged to have been mentally ill is being used by some as an argument for further disarming the mentally ill in general. (It is also interesting that so little focus has hitherto been placed on the dangerous drugs these shooters are all taking, rather than mental illness itself).

Gun rights groups have understandably steered clear of the mental illness issue. On first glance, it just seems like common sense that people with mental illness should not be running around the streets with guns, and groups like the NRA have sidestepped the issue in order to focus on other concerns, like making sure an assault weapons ban is not reinstated. This looks like a politically savvy move by these groups, but it is also a cowardly way to avoid having to stand up for a very vulnerable and voiceless group of people. If these gun rights groups had any worth at all, or if they had one shred of moral fortitude, it would be time for them to stand up for the rights of this extremely vulnerable group of people. Since there is virtually no chance of this happening, it is important for us as individuals to stand up for the gun rights of the mentally ill.

Tackling the issue of mental illness and guns is not nearly as politically dangerous as gun rights groups think. On the contrary, there are so many people in the United States that could potentially be classified as "mentally ill" by the state that it is politically dangerous for these groups to not stand up for them. As much as 20% of the adult population in the United States could be classified as having a mental illness in 2011 alone! With that many people at risk of being disarmed, (if they haven't been so already), the gun rights groups are just plain crazy not to stand up for them.

In addition, the entire case for disarming the mentally ill is based more upon fear and misconceptions rather than rational argument. In the first place, there is the gigantic problem of deciding who is to be considered mentally ill. Most people probably have in mind disarming delusional schizophrenics walking around in bunny slippers, an image the gun control crowd has fostered, but mental illness is a much broader concept than that.

For example, if a medical student suffers a panic attack due to stress and is institutionalized for a day or two, does that mean that she is mentally ill and should be disarmed? If so, for how long will she lose her right to bear arms, and who is to decide if and when she is to recover her ability to defend herself? Or, what about the estimated 11% of Americans who are taking antidepressants? Are these people also mentally ill, and will they be disarmed as well? What if a person took antidepressants years ago, but has since stopped taking them? Is he mentally ill, and will he be disarmed? Or, even more dangerous, what if a prescription-happy doctor tells you to take antidepressants, but you don't want them and don't even take them? Would you still be classified as having been diagnosed with mental illness and lose your right to own guns? These are just a few of the fantastically insidious implications of disarming the mentally ill even more than they already have been.

The implications of disarming the mentally ill go far beyond merely the civilian population, because our armed services are absolutely chock filled with people who could and probably would be classified as mentally ill. The astounding rate at which soldiers are killing themselves testifies to this fact, as does the astounding 110,000 soldiers who are taking powerful antidepressant, sedative and antipsychotic medications. Are these people to be disarmed as well? If so, where would that leave our military? What about when these soldiers return home with emotional and other mental problems, are we going to add insult to injury and tell them that we are going to disarm them as well? Thanks for sacrificing your mental health, soldier, your reward is to lose your right to own guns.

These are just some of the practical implications that would flow from completely disarming the mentally ill in this country, but there are still other ethical problems that would flow from it as well. Many of the more seriously mentally ill persons in this country are incapable of holding down remunerative work, and many thus live in poorer parts of the cities in this country that are far from safe. To disarm these people, many of whom are already easy targets of crime, is to make them even more vulnerable for exploitation and injury. To disarm these people completely would be to broadcast from the rooftops to the criminals of this country that it was open season on the mentally ill. Want an easy mark that you know is not armed, just pick out the nearest mentally ill person!

Also bear in mind that, because there are so very many people in this country who can be classified as mentally ill, and current laws for restricting their gun rights are ineffective, there are currently millions upon millions of mentally ill people with guns in America. This fact alone should alert us to the fact that mentally ill people are overwhelmingly capable of owning guns responsibly, just like people without mental illness. These millions of responsible mentally ill are completely overlooked, as if it is impossible for a mentally ill person to refrain from shooting people, which is just plain silly.

The firearm is the great equalizer for weak and vulnerable people, like the mentally ill and the elderly (many of whom are depressed, and could thus also be classified as mentally ill!). To take away a weak or vulnerable person's right to defend himself is self-righteous, cowardly, and wrong. All people have the right to defend themselves against aggression. This is just as true of the mentally ill as it is of anyone else. Getting sick, whether physically or mentally, should not mean that you lose your right to defend yourself.

If this doesn't convince you, remember that there has been a long tradition in the United States of using psychology as a weapon against the weak and vulnerable. If the mentally ill are disarmed today, you could easily find yourself diagnosed as mentally ill tomorrow. When that happens, you will wish that you had stood up for the rights of the weakest among us.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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