018: Guns, Mental Illness, and Mass Violence In America
I come to you today to present a reasonable, current, and unbiased examination of American culture as it relates to guns, violence, and mental health in response to the building social fallout from the violence in Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO, Brookfield, WI, etc. I am seeing too much of the ignorant single-minded partisanship that is tearing this country apart. People are digging into their ideas using misinformation, ignorant inflammatory rhetoric, and outdated concepts. I really only hope to use this space to prompt reasonable, constructive conversation about how this country can effectively move forward from these tragedies with purpose.
In honor of honesty and transparency I’d like to put a few thing on the table first. I am a gun owner. I have a 12 gauge shotgun for clay shooting and home defense and .22 rifles for recreational use. I do not hunt. I am a registered Republican who voted for Obama, but I am disgusted with both parties’ systematic disenfranchisement of the center in favor of extremism. I have family and friends in both Law Enforcement and the US Military. I am 27, married, but no kids yet.
The first issue I would like to address starts with a simple clarification. That is that gun control does not mean gun ban. Nor does it mean ban most guns. It means taking a hard look at the nature of guns, their use in our modern society, and how that use should be monitored and regulated.
The Nature Of Guns
It has only been in recent history that guns have come into their role as tools for sport, i.e. clay, trap, and skeet shooting. Yet the gun’s origin lies in one purpose and that is death and destruction. Guns were invented with the sole purpose of violently taking life, whether that of humans in battle or animals in hunting. This purpose has not been erased by time but rather has only been bolstered by it.
Too often I hear people use some variation of the following argument to oppose gun control: “What about knives, cars, or planes? They kill people. Should we ban/regulate them too?” This argument is a false equivalence. These things were all invented as a tool and sadly became a killing instrument later on. But, if you wish to cling to that argument then yes let’s talk about regulation. The requirements to become a pilot and to continue being a pilot are necessarily high in order to make sure that only those best suited to the task are allowed to. Or even cars, I must have a license which requires a practical and written exam, has to be renewed (in my state) every 7 years, and most importantly can be suspended or even revoked. I also must have some form of liability insurance on my vehicle due to its potentially destructive power. None of these rules apply to guns. The closest you get is the requirement for a Concealed Weapons Permit, but that is not required to purchase a gun. Next to that is a required background check, but even that can be circumvented by purchasing from a “private individual.”
Gun ownership is absolutely a right under the 2nd Amendment and was confirmed by the 2010 Supreme Court Case of District of Columbia v. Heller. Yet, many seem to forget that with Rights come Responsibilities. Part of those responsibilities needs to be submitting to proper licensing and renewal. Another part needs to be a limit on the number of guns that an individual and/or household can own. As of right now, the statistics paint a picture of unnecessary glut. As of July 2011, the US Census Bureau reports that there are 311,591,917 million people living in America. In comparison most reports estimate that there are between 250,000,000 and 300,000,000 guns in circulation in America. Of these approximately 100,000,000 are hand guns. Yet, only people over 18 who are not felons are eligible to purchase guns. So this reduces the population actively eligible to purchase and own a gun to approximately 230,000,000. Now, when compared to a more accurate population, the gun number suddenly seems out of proportion. I can only assume that most individuals/households do not own more than one gun. Maybe it’s a pistol for home defense, a rifle for hunting, or a shotgun for sport. In addition to this there are those who have a variety of guns to fit different purposes (deer, hog, quail, clay, skeet, trap, target, etc.) and then even more so are collectors who may have dozens if not hundreds of guns.
Yet, most opposition seems to come from those in office who are trying to assuage the minds of certain constituents. But I say that routine murder and massacre should not be the price Americans have to pay to placate the paranoia of extremist gun advocates who have constructed a grim fantasy world where it is necessary to stockpile weapons in order to fend off an imagined assault by the government. A government which most of them would rather not even participate in. There is no need for assault weapons, automatic weapons, and large capacity magazines in our country, let alone a stockpile of them. The 2nd Amendment still persists, but not in its original intention.
The glory of the US Constitution is the glory of America: the ability to adapt to change in order to stay current. When originally penned, owning a gun also included the necessity of civic duty; a gun owner could be called up at any time by the local militia, state units, or national army to serve. At that time, most people only owned one gun, and law enforcement and the military where not the standing persistent creatures the are today so this was necessary. Yet now we no longer have this implied civic duty. We have elite, highly trained forces in place on all levels of society to protect us as citizens. As far as defending our country the only attack likely to happen on our country is a nuclear strike from a rogue dictator or a coordinated bombing by a terrorist faction. Neither of which has much chance of being stopped by an armed citizenry.
The Nature Of Mental Illness.
Mental health lives under a dark cloud in America, in our modern society, in most places. Despite the shuttering of asylums and the elimination of things like shock therapy, we are still trying to avoid the issue by hiding or dulling those who suffer from mental illness in our country. We live in an age where we can finally diagnose and treat things that for decades, centuries, and millenia were simply chalked up to things like hysteria and exhaustion but we are still shying from it. It has to stop. The cloud has to be lifted. The key here is to treat from the root instead of snipping at the leaves.
While true that many mental illness’ do not onset until adult or even late adulthood, research now shows that 50% of all lifetime cases of mental health begin by age 14. 4,000,000 children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental health illness, but yet only 20% of them are identified and receive any kind of treatment in a given year. Now with an age group that is routinely under close supervision by adults (the school system) and strong research that shows that early diagnosis and treatment prevents a significant portion of these children and adolescents from going on to be criminals or delinquents, and even more so become more likely to be productive members of society. Yet, the systems in place have no teeth. Yes, strong recommendations can be made by teachers, psychiatrists, and schools, but until the culture changes and parents are no longer afraid of having a child who has something wrong with them, than little will change.
This social stigma has forced those with mental illness into a reprehensible wheel. A lack of social acceptance has led to lack of easily accessible mental health care, and even what is available is often woefully underfunded. This leads to those with mental illness not receiving treatment and are unaccepted by society. This leads to acting out through violence and/or substance abuse which leads to them being arrested and put in jail. This has created a paradigm where prisons and jails are the option for those with mental illness. These people then fall into a cycle of being arrested, being incarcerated, being released, and then being arrested again. As a result, the rate of people with mental illness being incarcerated quadrupled from 1998-2006.
A recent study by the University of South Florida of offenders in Miami-Dade county found that 97 people with mental illness, primarily schizophrenia, were the highest users of the criminal justice system being arrested 2,200 times over 5 years for a cost of $13,000,000 to tax payers. The problem is that prisons and jails are not designed for treatment of mental illness. Essentially they have replaced asylums as they are simply containment for mentally ill people instead of treatment centers. In effect, society has forced the criminalization of mental illness.
The Nature Of Mass Violence.
With the inclusion of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary there have been 4 mass shootings in America in 2012. Per the criteria put forth in this article from Mother Jones, there have been a minimum of 62 Mass Shootings since 1982. Yet only now does America seem willing to finally face the challenges of doing what we can to stem this tide.
The most important thing to know going into a discussion on mass violence is that it cannot be prevented. But, it can be prohibited. Prohibition will only come through a multifaceted look at the issue, and not a heavy-handed, blunt response to a single issue. Gun bans and gun control will not work on its own. A broad spectrum addressing of mental health treatment in America will not work on its own. Tightening security at all public places until America resembles a police state will not work on its own. Arming everyone will not work period. As you will come to hear me say often and loud, everything in moderation.
Let’s start with what most people seem to think is the solution: gun control. Yet in what form? Obviously a ban on all guns is out of the question, and should be no matter who you are. What should be on the table is eliminating certain gun elements from our society. Assault rifles like the Bushmaster, AR-15, and AK-47 and pistols like the Glock, Sig Sauer, and other 9mm and .40 caliber varieties have no place in the hands of your average citizen whether in automatic or semi-automatic varieties. More importantly is the elimination of high-capacity magazines. Under no circumstances does someone need to have the ability to fire off 20+ rounds before reloading. Under any normal scenario for gun use (hunting, sport, or defense) you will likely never have a chance to fire a few rounds before either your target is out of range or is too close for gun fire to be effective. Some will claim that this has no effect, that those who want to get guns will simply steal them and that is true. Approximately 500,000 guns are stolen each year, but those guns come from people who are able to easily purchase whatever guns they want whenever they want to. However, in the case of Mass Shootings research shows that most weapons used in Mass Shootings are legally obtained.
Simply putting these regulations in place, increasing licensing for guns to at least the same level as operating a motor vehicle, and removing the loophole on background checks for purchasing firearms from private individuals will at least complicate the process. At this point, every barrier between those who intend to do harm and the guns they intend to use should be put in place.
Of course from there you get the argument that people will inflict harm whether they have a gun or not. This is not a claim I will dispute. Whether crossbow, knife, baseball bat, etc violent crime will continue. Many try to point to the fact that the violent crime rates in America are in line with those in other countries, yet they omit the fact that our rate of homicide by violent crime is much higher and that correlates directly to our disproportionate gun population. For example, in 2011 the United Kingdom had a total of 550 homicides while the US had 8,583 homicides just from gun violence. That works out to approximately 23.5 gun homicides per day.
Even with all the restrictions and licensing one could ever dream up, the trick is to eliminate the now restricted weapons and magazines from circulation. Confiscation is out of the question. It would be such a huge violation of American culture you would instantly have a cultural and social uprising from people who are gun owners and non-owners alike. So, it becomes essential that federal, state, and local governments work together to orchestrate some type of incentivized turn in program.
The second hot button issue in response to the prevention of Mass Shootings is an increased focus on mental health and its role in these incidents. While much is made of the conversation about mental illness and violence, and some research shows that there may be a link. Yet, much stronger and more thorough research shows that it is more likely coincidental than correlative. Substance abuse is shown to have a much higher link to violence than mental illness. But, there is one important element I wish to bring up in relation to mass violence by youth. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among those aged 15-24, and of those, 90% have a mental illness. This taken in context of the concept presented by psychiatrist and author Carl Bell that the shootings are simply “suicide preceded by mass murder, but the dynamic of suicide is being overlooked.”
Whether or not the link between mental health and violence is important, what is important is that mental health has actively entered the public discussion. After seeing public support from mothers, psychiatrists, and teachers who struggle to deal with children with mental illness it is time to act to break the cycle of the criminalization of mental illness that America has been caught in.
Finally, most importantly it is time for Americans to come together. It is time to reach out and start to rebuild our communities and to end the isolation we are further descending into. Through increased community we have greater awareness and will hopefully be able to identify if not eliminate those who are most likely to threaten those around us with violence. We can put all the laws we want, and we can have all the discussions we want but in the end it is up to America to change on a society level. I think this gentleman, Coach Pat Kelsey said it best in his impassioned, off the cuff response to the situation:
“And I don’t know what needs to be done. I’m not smart enough to know what needs to be done, OK? I know this country’s got issues. Is it a gun issue? Is it a mental illness issue? Or is it a society that has lost the fact, the understanding, that decent human values are important? And our leaders – I didn’t vote for President Obama. But you know what? He’s my president now. He’s my leader. I need him to step up. Mr. Boehner, the Speaker of the House […] he needs to step up. Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up. This has to be a time for change. […] And I’m going to be an agent of change with the 13 young men I get to coach every day and the two little girls that I get to raise. But hopefully things start changing, because it’s really, really disappointing. I’m proud to grow up American. I’m proud to say I’m part of the greatest country ever. And that’s got to stay that way. And it’ll stay that way if we change. But we gotta change.”
Again, this is my attempt at a balanced examination of the issue with the hopes of generating productive and reasonable conversation in response to the challenges our county is facing. Feel free to send me your feedback, HOWMANYBEARDS [at] GMAIL [dot] COM.