Mental Illness Wrong Focus For Gun Debate


According to the New York Times, only 4 percent of violence in the United States is perpetrated by the mentally ill. Why, then, is that where the national debate on gun control has gone?

Richard A. Friedman, M.D., author of the Times article writes:

“All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.”

While the mentally ill need treatment, the sad truth is that we have no idea how to identify potential mass murders. Here is the opinion of Jeffery Swanson, psychiatry professor at Duke University and expert on the roots of violence:

“You can profile the perpetrators after the fact and you’ll get a description of troubled young men, which also matches the description of thousands of other troubled young men who would never do something like this.”

The Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, has so far not been identified as having a mental illness, though descriptions of him as nervous and a loner abound. Yet America has immediately leapt on mental illness as the factor behind the murders. The fact is, we just don’t know.

Even if it’s true, as some have speculated, that Lanza was diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome, there is no link between Asperger’s Syndrome and violence. And not only do we not know whether he had such a diagnosis, or whether any attempt was ever made to get him help, but most people who are capable of such an act would probably also escape detection–until after the fact. Professor Michael Stone, an expert on mass murders from Columbia University, says:

“Most of these killers are young men who are not floridly psychotic. They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage.”

Furthermore, he observes that even though young psychotic males who have a history of involuntary commitment are at a high risk of violence when intoxicated, most who fit that profile are harmless.

As a matter of fact, alcohol and drug abuse in themselves far greater factors in violent behavior than mental illness alone, yet there is no uproar over keeping weapons out of the hands of habitual users. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides occurred between 2001 and 2010, but few were at the hands of the mentally ill–yet the current debate further stigmatizes those who suffer from mental illness.

So, yes, let’s focus on getting the military-grade weapons out of the hands of the general populace. And yes, let’s focus on getting more help for the mentally ill. Let’s just not confuse the two.

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