Discussion over gun control and Second Amendment rights devolved into a derogatory debate over “crazy” and “insane” individuals at a CNN town hall event on Wednesday night.
Speaking with students, parents, and teachers from Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida — the scene of last week’s deadly mass shooting — guests Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel frequently peppered their responses with phrases like “crazy,” “deranged,” or “mentally insane,” ignoring studies and statistics showing that those living with a mental illness were far less likely to commit violent crimes.
“Do you guys want to stop mentally insane individuals from getting firearms? Yes? They have to be in the system…. You can convict them, you can adjudicate them mentally unfit,” Loesch said at one point in the evening.
Referring to suspected Parkland gunman Nikolas Cruz, Loesch added, “This is why I came down here. I don’t believe that this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm. Ever. I do not think that he should have gotten his hands on any kind of weapon. …This individual was nuts.”
Sheriff Israel, who clashed with Loesch on several points, seemed to agree.
“I come here tonight with 39 years in law enforcement. I’ve Baker Acted people. I’ve taken weapons from people,” he said, referring to a statute from 1971 that allows authorities to involuntarily commit those deemed to have a “mental illness” to an institution for examination. “The men and women that I’ve worked with for 40 years, we know how to keep America safe…. We have to take weapons out of the hands of people that suffer from mental illness.”
He added, “When police encounter someone…we shouldn’t have to wait until they are a danger to themselves or someone else. We should be able to take them to an institution that’s going to examine them and take weapons away from them, right then and there.”
The conversation continued into Thursday morning, with President Trump repeating the arguments on Twitter.
“I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks!” he wrote. “Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue – I hope!”
Neither Trump nor the guests at CNN’s town hall event on Wednesday night mentioned extensive research showing that those who have mental health conditions are more likely to become victims of violent crime than to carry out acts of violence themselves. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, only 3-5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with “a serious mental illness.” By contrast, those with mental health issues are 10 times more likely to become victims of violent crimes than the general population.
Additionally, the continued demonization of individuals living with a mental illness — even in the face of tragedies like the Parkland shooting — may have disastrous, unintended effects. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, the majority of gun owners and non-gun owners supported the idea of barring people with a mental illness from accessing firearms, even if those individuals had not been determined to be dangerous; half of the study’s participants also believed that “people with serious mental illness are more dangerous than members of the general population.” Most were also “unwilling” to work with or live next to someone with a serious mental illness.
The researchers concluded that, while most Americans were supportive of increased government spending on mental health treatment to reduce gun violence, the negative attitudes that accompanied many of those discussions could further “exacerbat[e] stigma or discourag[e] people from seeking treatment.” This is especially important to consider, given that one in five adults in the United States experiences some form of mental illness, and one in 25 live with “serious” mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Using that kind of language [‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ or ‘deranged’] sends the message that it’s OK to trivialize mental illness and lazily substitute real people’s lived experiences for ‘wild,’ ‘silly,’ ‘dangerous’ or ‘out of control,” activist and writer Lydia X. Z. Brown told Mic in June 2016.
Restricting those with mental illnesses from accessing firearms is also unlikely to affect the overall rate of violence in the country, according to experts.
“Most violence in society is caused by other things,” Jeffrey Swanson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, told ProPublica in 2014. “Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.”
He added, “If someone has a history of any kind of violent or assaultive behavior, that’s actually a better predictor of future violence than having a mental health diagnosis. If someone has a conviction for a violent misdemeanor, we think there’s evidence, they ought to be prohibited [from owning guns.]”
It’s unfair then to target a group of people traditionally disinclined to commit acts of violence, experts argue — and that fact has not escaped many of the parents of the country’s youngest shooting victims.
“I think it’s important to note that someone with a mental illness is highly unlikely to ever commit an act of violence. It’s a very small percentage. What we’re really dealing with here is more of a lack of mental wellness,” Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, said during a gun violence listening session at the White House on Wednesday.
She added, “This is about anger and fear. That’s not something that you can diagnose and put in mental health hospitals. This is more about funding for mental health services.”