January 10, 2011

Guns, Violence and Mental Illness

The Question of the Day over at Pam's House Blend is an interesting one: Should someone with a mental illness be allowed to own a gun?

The entire article is well worth a read, but here are the cliff notes:

There's reason to believe that the alleged shooter of Representative Gabrielle Giffords was mentally ill, and that he shot her BECAUSE he's crazy. No need to explore motive - he probably didn't have one, right? (or rather, any motive he had is taken as a symptom of the aforementioned crazy).

Like the Virginia Tech shootings a few years ago, this will probably spark a discussion about whether or not people with diagnosed mental illnesses should be able to buy or use guns.

However, it's not necessarily fair to use mental illness as a primary explanation for violence, explains Vaughn Bell over at Slate:

This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don't expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

Seena Fazel is an Oxford University psychiatrist who has led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses -- schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, either of which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality. Rather than looking at individual cases, or even single studies, Fazel's team analyzed all the scientific findings they could find. As a result, they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.

But really, that's how we're talking about it, isn't it? "Oh, he was crazy, that's why he shot all those people." A Representative is talking about banning crosshair symbols of the kind Sarah Palin used to "target" Rep. Gifford's district, and he described it like this:

Asked if he believed the map incited the gunman in Tucson, he replied, “I don’t know what’s in that nut’s head. I would rather be safe than sorry.”


"That nut". The unfathomable crazy which almost necessarily leads to violence. But there's scientific evidence that a psychiatric condition, even a serious one, doesn't say anything about whether or not someone will be violent, or why, so I'm uncomfortable dismissing the shooter's reasons and actions as the exclusive result of some incomprehensible madness.

Then again, it's more comfortable to blame the mental illness, because then, if we can just do the right screenings and keep guns out of the hands of the right people, this sort of thing wouldn't happen, right? If we caught the signs that someone was going off the deep end and got them into the hospital quick enough, such tragedies would never occur, right? But if mental illness isn't a good indicator of violence, and "sane" people are as statistically likely to commit such acts as a schizophrenic or bipolar person, then is it really fair to keep talking about mental illness as if it were the sole or primary cause for the violence, even if it's more comfortable that way...?

This is what I'm pondering as I'm off this morning to beg my way into a full psych class that I couldn't register for. Wish me luck!

EDIT: Feministe also has a really good look at the Slate article.


Deziree said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Even if people have what we term mental illnesses, when they commit violence they have a reason. Their reasons just may not make sense to people who don't share their perspective.

Foxie said...

Not read the linked articles yet, but I will be. I have to say, I've always found the whole, 'insanity' defense a strange one with regards to murder. I mean, surely a sane person wouldn't deliberately kill another human being, and anyone who does is by definition not a sane human being. When the government is pumping billions into a military which is nothing more than a well-equipped and supported organisation of murderers and is putting people to death for crimes they've been convicted off, how can they expect the people they rule to be do anything other than imitate them?

Anyway, you're right: 'crazy' people aren't any more violent than anyone else. 'Crazy' people are still people with motivations and views and understandings of the world. The only difference between an individual with a gun and an individual with a gun in the army is one killer has the backing of the government. 'Crazy' doesn't come into it.

But hey, 'crazy' people aren't people at all, right? No need to treat people with mental illness as people. Start doing that, and they may tell you things you don't want to hear.