After the deaths of students and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, following the recent shootings in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, the public debate over gun control has renewed. Those familiar with the history of firearm ownership in the U.S. know that this debate returns on a regular basis to the public dialogue. This time, however, it’s different – much of the attention focuses on mental illnesses and their perceived role in these mass murders.
Sadly, this is fueled largely by both the general stigma attached to mental illness and the public’s misconception (thanks largely to that stigma) that mental illness and violence are somehow connected. These two issues in tandem feed into the knee-jerk reaction people are having to the gun violence issue because of the recent tragedies in Newtown and Aurora.
The trouble is that even a cursory survey of the mass shootings that have taken place in the past few years shows that the incidence of known mental illness in the shooters was not high, nor was it consistent enough to be easily used as a causal factor.
Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, had no known mental illnesses (though speculation has run wild), and the “Batman Shooter” in Colorado was also not known to have any serious mental illness. Yet both of these incidents are being used as sounding points to somehow “prove” that mental illness is linked to violent atrocities.
A Lack of Evidence Never Stops Public Policy
Despite this lack of evidence, however, policymakers are calling for and even beginning to implement measures that will restrict gun ownership amongst the mentally ill or expand the powers that physicians have in diagnosing and removing the rights of people who may (or may not) have a mental illness.
Why all of the focus on mental illness?
Frankly, it’s because the mentally ill are an easy target. No pun intended.
The aforementioned stigmas are a big part of that. Those with mental illnesses also do not have very many advocacy groups, nor do they have a large lobby to push lawmakers into a new direction. Unlike the other targets being implicated in this issue – gun rights/ownership, the role of violence in media, pharmaceuticals, etc. – the mentally ill have no powerful lobbying forces to bring the issue into either the public limelight or force lawmakers to turn their focus elsewhere.
Rights Are Not Subject to Bigotry
Whether or not you agree with the Second Amendment and the right of individuals in the U.S. to own firearms, you must agree that a recognized right for one person must apply to all people in this country. So removing a right simply because someone has a diagnosis (irrespective of the severity of it) is discrimination akin to taking away the rights of a person based on skin color, religious affiliation, or any other bigoted reason.
The harsh reality is that very few mental illnesses are attributed to violence – and those that are have long been treated as such, so the person is usually removed to safety. Yet the focus on mental illnesses in this public discourse has done a lot more harm than good.
When we discriminate against one group of people, we ultimately discriminate against all people. This, if nothing else, is the ultimate lesson our history has shown to be true time and again.
Instead of realizing this, we continue to repeat the crime of bigotry over and over, merely changing the labels used or the subjects being targeted and calling it “just.”
Common Links Between Mass Shootings
The wrongness of putting mental illness into the spotlight and at the top of the list of things to blame for these recent shootings is glaring. Of all the commonalities amongst the recent shooters, pre-diagnosed mental illness is not one of them. To be blunt, a mass shooter is statistically no more likely to have a diagnosed mental illness than is any person walking the street.
Of course, these mass shootings all share many common links – most of which are ignored by pundits and policy makers. Obviously, their being mass shootings means that firearms are universal throughout. This is what links them, after all.
Other commonalities include:
- The victims are usually targeted generally, but not for personal reasons – in other words, the shooter rarely has a vendetta against the specific victims being targeted, but instead uses them in a more vague sense to objectify his anger.
- The shooters are almost universally male and between the ages of 17 and 25.
- The victims are usually in an area that is “safe” for the shooter to perpetrate his attack with minimal fear of immediate, violent response – places like schools, crowded theaters, and (specifically) “gun-free zones” where the victims are unlikely to mount a violent response to the shooter’s attack.
- The objective is usually to inflict as much carnage as possible in as short a time as possible in order to minimize the potential interference from police – a tactical police response takes time, and this means the shooter has a specific amount of “safe” time to carry out his mass murder.
- The shooter is usually consigned to suicide rather than capture and will commit suicide as soon as it appears that he is in danger of being harmed or caught – with few exceptions, such as the Batman Shooter in Colorado, these mass murders usually end in self-death by the perpetrator.
These and other commonalities in the mass shootings that have taken place in the past few years are rarely considered in the public debate. They’re often ignored to the extent that they are perpetuated by making it even easier for future shooters – such as by expanding “gun-free zones” or lengthening potential armed police response times by changing policy.
Instead, the focus continues to be on finding groups that can be labeled to take the blame. This is our public policy on discourse regarding violence and it doesn’t seem to be changing. Evidence or no.
Image: Sculpture de “Non-Violence” by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd