Saturday, October 10, 2015

Demonizing the Mentally Ill - a letter to the VoteVets organization

I was deeply disturbed by the email I got from your group today asking for my signature on a petition being circulated by Garrett Reppenhagen, asking to call on Congress for sensible gun laws to be enacted - requiring background checks on all purchases and to keep guns out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill. 

I cannot support such a petition.  In a United States where too many of our leaders view Mental Illness as an on or off condition for people - with anyone having any diagnosis of mental illness to be considered a danger for hair trigger explosions of temper and ill-judgement - without careful and specific definitions for what "Dangerously Mentally Ill" might mean, I am far too afraid that by the time Congress is done with such a proposal they will simultaneously shift the burden for self-defense to the mantle of the private gun-owner and then remove the ability to protect themselves from the one in four people in the United States who will suffer from some form of mental illness during their life times.  

This is not sound public policy.   It's also regressive in that it leaves at the most vulnerable those people who are poorest and can least afford to protect themselves with a privately owned firearm.  

I am going to ignore, for the sake of keeping this note to a readable length, the fact that without regular proficiency shooting I don't believe that anyone could use a gun for self defense in any sort of effective manner, anyways.  Similarly, I will simply mention that any massive increase in gun ownership in the US is going to increase the rate of death by firearms if only because the largest single risk-factor for suicide in this nation is the presence or absence of a gun in the home.  

Without specific, clear, and limited definitions for what constitutes dangerous mental illness, a petition such as the one Garrett Reppenhagen is circulating is going to do more harm than good.  

The thing that bothers me most is that while I abhor the fuzziness of this particular petition's language I agree with the intent of the petition - to make sure that people whom any reasonable, informed person might consider a poor risk for good judgment when holding a lethal weapon do not have easy access to firearms seems only sensible to me.  But in order for that discussion to happen, we've got to address just what is and isn't mental illness in the public conscioiusness.  As an example, in two of the three more public shooting incidents to have gotten the attention of the national media, the perpetrators have no history of mental illness in their records, and can be argued to have been acting in their right minds at the time that they committed their horrific crimes.  Darryl Roof is a racist who was too willing to buy into the necessity for race war to cleanse the nation, and protect it from inimical influences, this does not mean, however, that he was acting under the influence of any mental illness when he performed his horrific and insane actions.  No definition of dangerous mental illness would have kept a gun out of Mr. Roof's hands.  That the standard background check should have kept a gun out of his hands is no comfort, either - but it's not a sign that there is a loophole for the dangerously mentally ill to acquire firearms that needs to be closed with quickly enacted, and poorly thought out legislation.  

When you're representing an organization that is primarily consists of veterans of recent military service, it is particularly galling to me to see you lending yourselves to the demonization of the mentally ill without taking precautions to make sure that the service members coming back from service overseas with mental illnesses are not going to be lumped into whatever sacrificial group is going to be staked out for the next round of gun violence.  One in four Americans will suffer mental illness at some time in their lives, and the vast majority of them will never commit any crimes in that time.  I don't know what the incidence of mental illness is in recent veterans, but I can't help but think it's even higher than the current average for Americans as a whole.  

There are far too many in the Presidential field who view the best solution for gun violence in the US to be an extension of gun ownership, and more venues where it is considered normal to carry firearms.  This would merely be annoying if it weren't for the concurrent demand these same politicians are making to remove firearms from the mentally ill.  As far as I know, Garrett Repenhagen's petition is the only voice sharing this general call that even hints that there might be such a thing as someone suffering mental illness who isn't an immediate public hazard.  So the effect of these policy changes, if they go through, may be to improve the safety of those people trusted to carry firearms, and the people around them.  I take leave to doubt that, but again - that's beyond the scope of this discussion.  It will also leave a sizable population, who in many cases have never committed any crime, metaphorically staked out as sacrificial goats to anyone who wants to target them.

And when talking about the mentally ill, they're a group already so statistically more vulnerable than those around them, this is utterly unconscionable in my opinion - and would be so even if I weren't on a VA Disability Pension for my own depression.  

If we, as a people, or VoteVets as an organization, wishes to advocate for more rational gun control laws - something I support - it seems to me that a very useful dual-pronged first step would be to remove the Congressional bars to simply gathering information about gun violence and crime in the US.  On the one hand, the BATF is barred, by statute, from collecting and analyzing data active gun sales - we require cars to be registered and in most states insured, becuase of the risk to the public good from such devices, isn't it time we consider doing the same for firearms?  More importantly, forbidding the CDC to commission studies that touch on gun violence or treat gun violence as a public health concern limits anyone approaching the issue with any kind of reliable data from which to make decisions.  

I do support other steps as well, and would support a petition for the improved background checks that Garrett Repenhagen suggests.  I'd love to support including some kind of check to try to keep firearms out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill if I were sure that that provision weren't going to mutate quickly into a blanket condemnation of all the mentally ill.  

But I don't think that any of these steps, by themselves, are going to be sufficient or provide a cure-all for gun violence in this nation.  And the sooner we admit that these are only first steps, the better off we'll be.  

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