Gun Laws and Mental Health

AUG. 21, 2012

Global

Last week, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino unveiled an interactive map to accompany its 2011 report, Fatal Gaps: Can Dangerous People Buy Guns in Your State? The coalition has been working to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous or potentially dangerous individuals, but the map focuses specifically on state reporting of mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The 2011 report and map provide informative data and some helpful perspective, but the focus and tone, particularly the report introduction, has grossly stigmatized individuals living with mental illness. It has blurred public dialogue and reinforced the erroneous perception that all people with mental illness are inherently violent.

The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low. There are many reasons why violence occurs in our society, many of which have nothing or little to do with mental illness.

In contrast to the mayors’ report, National Public Radio last week broadcast a balanced discussion on “The Law—and the Reality—of Gun Access.” Federal law currently bars certain categories of individuals—including some with a history of mental illness—from purchasing or owning guns. Potential purchasers are screened through the NICS.

The mayors’ report is correct in identifying holes in the system but in its call on the federal government to provide clear guidance as to “which mental health and drug abuse should be submitted to NICS,” falls woefully short of addressing one of the most important factors responsible for confusion among the states.

Federal law speaks in terms of individuals “adjudicated mentally defective” a term that is not only highly offensive, but has no practical meaning. Likewise, terms in the law such as “civilly committed” require practical definition.

In 2007, NAMI testified before Congress, explaining how current definitions in the law are vague, leading to holes in compliance and enforcement. To date, there has been no effort in Congress to change the law—thoughtfully and carefully—in a way that is not only overly broad, but also avoids unfair, damaging discrimination.

One paramount concern is to avoid creating a situation where people are in fact discouraged from getting help when they need it because of speculative fear over stigma.

It’s worth having public dialogue about making gun laws more effective. But extreme, broad-brushed rhetoric that ignores medical science, modern definitions and actual risk factors will only detract from the discussion.

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