In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 dead and over 500 wounded, gun control advocates have advanced two widely popular policies to prevent future tragedies: a ban on assault weapons and restrictions on gun ownership for the mentally ill. The former is common sense; the latter is simply treated like it.
On its face, a policy preventing the mentally ill from accessing guns may seem uncontroversial. The idea is widely supported by Democrats, and in 2016, President Obama even enacted a regulation that made it more difficult for people with registered psychiatric disabilities to purchase guns (though this February, President Trump rescinded it).
Outside of Congress, support for such measures is bipartisan. In one recent survey, 89 percent of respondents from both parties expressed support for policies that would prevent the mentally ill from purchasing guns, a higher proportion than those favoring similar restrictions against people on no-fly and federal watch lists.
The line of thinking behind a policy like this is easily traceable to the dark annals of American gun violence. In recent years, the psychiatric profiles of shooters like Jared Loughner, Dylann Roof, and James Holmes have become grounds for not only prosecutorial but public debate. There is little doubt that these people are unwell. After all, who but the truly deranged could commit crimes like theirs? Yet, these anecdotes aren’t enough to back the causal claims implicit in the policies they inspire.
Research shows that the vast majority of people diagnosed with mental illnesses are no more likely to use a gun to harm themselves or others than anyone else in the general population. Therefore policies designed to target the mentally ill would necessarily abridge the rights of thousands, if not millions, of non-violent Americans who pose no exceptional threat to society. Even if second amendment rights are not of particular concern to you, gun control policies solely targeted at the mentally ill would be less effective than policies targeted at the broader population. Somehow, these facts have been lost on many advocates of evidence-based gun regulation.
The public’s willingness to conflate mental illness with gun violence also has dangerous cultural implications. Causal language around these issues stigmatizes mental illness and places an unfair onus on mental health practitioners, who would be handed the implicit liability of protecting the public from often unforeseeable harm. While solutions to our plague of gun violence may someday be found in psychology and psychiatry, premature conclusions drawn by outsiders to these fields will only do more harm than good.
As a nation, we can and must do better. We should enact stricter regulations on firearms and their use by anyone, not just targeted minorities. Assault weapons designed with no intention beyond human destruction should be summarily banned from our streets. We should urge Congress to fund studies on gun violence so that future policies may be fact-based and effective. And we should also provide greater resources for those struggling with mental illness, not because we fear what they might do, but because we care about who they are.
Gun control advocates are right to confront the dangerous idea peddled by the NRA and the GOP that everyone should have access to a gun. But we must not allow our battle with such abominable evil to corrupt our notions of reason, compassion, and equality.
Benjamin Sorensen is a senior studying political science. Read his weekly column, “Beyond the Beltway,” every Thursday.