In the weeks following the horrific Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting, there is once again a rush to scapegoat people with mental health problems, commonly referred to with the catch all term, “the mentally ill.” The Broward County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that people suffering from “mental illness should not have a gun. We need lawmakers’ help. We need the community’s help.” It is a familiar refrain. Political commentators sometimes talk about interest groups or institutions that are in political “sweet spots.” Americans who suffer from mental health issues can find themselves in a political sour spot when it comes to their freedom to own guns, as they suffer from many liberals’ support for gun control and many conservatives’ disdain for the disabled.
To be clear, an individual suffering from mental illness who has engaged in violent and/or criminal behavior should be subject to the same restrictions on gun ownership that apply to other people with histories of violence. But that, of course, is not what the Broward County Sheriff’s Office proposed, and many other Americans show a similar lack of discernment. I recently participated in a Facebook debate about keeping guns away from the mentally ill. A self-described Democratic Socialist dismissed the notion that someone suffering from mental health issues should have the same gun rights as anyone else if they had a clean criminal record. He compared it to laws prohibiting five year-old children from buying bazookas. At the other end of the political spectrum, former House Speaker John Boehner, who earned an A rating from the NRA, said in 2014 that, “There’s no question that those with mental health issues should be prevented from owning weapons or being able to purchase weapons.” This would presumably include anyone who has suffered from anxiety, OCD, or depression. That is a rabbit hole that, given his own history of crying in public, Boehner ought not to go down. There is no reason to assume that even someone with severe mental health problems will necessarily go on to commit violent crimes if they have never done so before. On the other hand, there is every reason to think that people with mental health problems are less likely to seek treatment if they know that they may have their rights restricted.
The “rabbit hole” is not a bug but a feature of any policies aimed at applying special gun ownership restrictions to “mentally ill” people who have not committed any crimes. Once someone with Schizophrenia who has a history of hallucinating cannot own a gun, politicians and activists have an argument for denying guns to people with Bipolar Disorder. Once people with Bipolar Disorder are denied guns, it becomes easier to deny them to people with Asperger’s or Autism. Then it becomes easier to deny gun ownership to anyone who has suffered from OCD or PTSD or Depression. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who has spent fifteen minutes herding a cockroach out the door to avoid killing it, this issue is very personal to me. Lest anyone think that people on the autistic spectrum are safe from the rush to scapegoat people with mental health problems, it is important to remember that multiple mass shooters have been alleged to have had Asperger’s or Autism. The New York Times ran an article in 2015 entitled, “The Myth of the ‘Autistic Shooter,’” but that has not stopped armchair psychologists from continuing to make the case that everyone on the autistic spectrum is a potential Adam Lanza. Indeed, as Dr. Emma E. McGinty, Assistant Professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, states, “Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents.” Additionally, even neurotypical people with histories of superb mental health ought to be alarmed by the idea that individuals can have their rights restricted because profiling suggests that they might be more likely to commit a violent crime. Such policies are a cornerstone of a totalitarian country and make all of us less free.
The support by elements of the American Left for keeping guns away from the mentally ill is not only uncharacteristically anti-civil liberties but also extremely inconsistent with how they respond to Muslims. Liberals who advocate keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people are essentially suggesting that if this demographic is more likely to commit mass shootings, this justifies special legal restrictions on them, such as Trump’s cruel actions toward refugees. To be clear, people should not be profiled, denied guns, barred from entering the country, or otherwise discriminated against for being Muslim. Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that Muslims are disproportionately likely to commit acts of terrorism. It has been pointed out that from 1980 to 2005, only six percent of terrorist attacks on American soil were carried out by Muslims. But Muslims only constitute about one percent of the U.S. population, meaning that this statistic actually shows that, relative to their numbers, Muslim Americans make up a disproportionate share of terrorists. Liberals rightly balk at proposals such as profiling Muslims at airport, patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, banning Muslim immigration, or requiring Muslims to register with the government. As stated above, people should not have their rights curtailed because some people from their demographic commit heinous acts. And focusing too much attention on suspects who fit the “right profile” can end up distracting attention from actual perpetrators. In 1901, President William McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York. Secret Service Agent George Foster became preoccupied by the presence of a six-and-a half foot tall black man named James Parker. In fact, he was so preoccupied by the perceived threat from Parker that he failed to notice the white man standing in front of Parker, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz, as it turned out, fatally shot McKinley. Admittedly, Parker did get involved in the shooting—by punching Czolgosz and wrestling him to the ground.
There is a final reason that the public should strongly reject special gun control laws for the mentally ill and, frankly, should be skeptical about gun control more broadly. Throughout history, governments have tried to maintain the oppression of disfavored groups by limiting their access to weapons. In feudal Europe, peasants were often forbidden from carrying swords. In the United States, some of the earliest gun control laws attempted to prevent slave rebellions by forbidding black people from owning guns. Nazi Germany forbade Jewish people from owning guns or even knives or truncheons. Ronald Reagan, never particularly enamored with minority rights or gun rights, signed an open carry ban as Governor of California to disarm the Black Panthers. Both those who suffer from mental health problems and their allies must be vigilant against attempts by to disempower them by taking away their right to own guns. Because it is a lot harder to maintain rights than it is to win rights back once they have been taken away.