As lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss possible legislative action on gun control in the wake of the country’s latest high-profile mass shooting, President Donald Trump focused on the dangers of the “mentally ill.”
“They have so many checks and balances that you can be mentally ill and it takes you six months before you can prohibit them [from buying a gun], so we have to do something very decisive,” Trump said. “You have to have very strong provisions for the mentally ill, now a lot of people are saying, ‘oh I shouldn’t be saying that’ — I tell you what, I don’t want mentally ill people to have guns.”
Since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this month, mental illness has been stigmatized by both Trump and gun advocates and offered up as the “real” explanation for mass shootings — rather than the ease of acquiring assault weapons. During a CNN town hall last week, National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman Dana Loesch repeatedly used phrases like “insane” and “unfit” to describe the mentally ill.
“Do you guys want to stop mentally insane individuals from getting firearms? Yes? They have to be in the system,” Loesch said. “You can convict them, you can adjudicate them mentally unfit.”
Trump seemed to catch on as well, tweeting the next morning that he was pushing “Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health” — despite the fact that he had previously repealed a rule blocking some mentally ill people from buying guns.
After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada that left 58 people dead last October, the White House pushed a similar line, saying that “new laws won’t stop a mad man committed to harming innocent people.” When a gunman shot 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas last November, Trump said that it was the result of a “mental health problem at the highest level.”
However, the rush to demonize mental illness ignores the actual research and statistics, which shows that those living with mental health conditions are actually far more likely to be the victim of a crime than to perpetrate one. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 3-5 percent of violent acts can be contributed to those with a serious mental illness. What’s more, while one in five adults in the U.S. experiences some form of mental illness, only one in 25 live with a “serious” mental health problem, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In fact, under the new fifth issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) — often referred to as the “psychiatric bible” — the odds are even greater that more Americans will be diagnosed with mental illness. The fourth volume of the DSM estimates that 46.5 percent of Americans will have a “diagnosable mental illness” in their lifetimes, and the new version is likely to make it “even easier” to get a diagnosis, raising those numbers even higher. This isn’t due to increased mental illness but rather better awareness and detection methods.
After so many mass shootings resulting in nothing more than a collective shrug from the nation’s shoulders, it’s refreshing to see lawmakers finally — if tentatively — start to talk about taking substantive action to address gun violence. But stigmatizing and fear-mongering against a huge swath of the American public isn’t the way to do it.