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Who is Mentally Ill?


The current push toward gun control is being presented in a particularly dangerous and dishonest manner. It is being framed in terms of mental health and packaged in a way that almost guarantees victory for the advocates of control. The debating point proffered is, “How do we keep guns away from the mentally ill?”

Thus far, President Obama’s answer has been vague and administrative enough to avoid the need for Congressional approval.

As the International Business Times reports, “In addition to gun control measures, Obama’s anti-violence package includes increasing mental health resources, boosting funding for school security and lifting restrictions that prevent the government from researching the causes of gun violence.”

These few specifics are indicative, however. For example, Obama is attempting to lift a longstanding ban on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) taking a position on gun control. In 1996, Congress made the appropriation of funds to the CDC conditional on the stipulation that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Now Obama has asked for $10 million for the CDC to research “the causes and prevention of gun violence.” Obama is declaring gun violence to be a public health issue. And he wishes to expand the sharing of mental health information between government agencies.

Moreover, Obama seems to have reversed himself on whether doctors should ask patients about whether they own guns. Under Obamacare, the federal government cannot use medical records to compile a database of gun owners. Nevertheless, Obama recently and prominently stated that Obamacare “does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.” Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages them to do so in the name of public safety.

Public safety. Public health. And the individual is lost in the shell game.

Raising the question of keeping guns from the mentally ill is not meant to promote discussion. It is intended to discredit and to silence anyone who answers it incorrectly.

The tactic is particularly dangerous because those who should be defending the fundamental right of self-defense are falling over themselves to agree with the focus on mental health. On January 24, the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) reminded readers that it has urged “the federal government to address the problem of mental illness and violence” for over four decades. The NRA reiterated, “the time is at hand to seek means by which society can identify, treat and temporarily isolate such individuals [the mentally ill].”

Before exploring the problems that attend the rhetorical coupling of gun ownership with mental health, however, it is important to note that the demand to keep guns away from the mentally ill does not refer to the sensible step of refusing to sell a weapon to someone high on PCP who screams, “I need it to kill my mother!” It refers to accepting the government’s definition of mental illness. It means agreeing to a government screening process that undoubtedly involves a federal database on people’s mental health.

The NRA’s chief executive Wayne LaPierre fully embraces this violation of privacy. He told FOX News that the mental-health lobby and federal law had blocked his organization’s proposal to place the names of people “with potentially dangerous mental health problems” into a federal database. (Emphasis added.) In reality, of course, everyone screened would be entered into whatever database existed.

What are some of the problems with focusing the firearms-ownership argument on the question, “How do we keep guns away from the mentally ill?”

Shifting the ground of debate

First, the question makes several unwarranted assumptions. It assumes everyone has a common definition of mental health — the government one. It assumes that politicians who are zealously anti–gun ownership will use their additional authority to make gun ownership safer rather than obsolete. (On one day alone, Obama recently signed 23 executive orders bearing on gun ownership.) It assumes that government approval of mental “wellness” ought to be required to exercise a fundamental right. Most importantly, the question leaves all discussion of actual rights to choke in the dust while expediency is explored. Respecting the Second Amendment is no longer on the table. How to revise it is.

Shifting the grounds of argument is also a psychological tactic. Those who continue to defend gun ownership as fundamental to the right of self-defense are transformed into people who do not care if guns are in the hands of the mentally ill. In the wake of the Newtown school massacre, they become moral monsters who will step over the bodies of children to protect their own weapons. The question itself is a form of character assassination directed at anyone who rejects the validity of government granting a right only after establishing a person’s mental ability to handle it.

What is next? Freedom of speech only for those who speak the truth? Freedom of association only for those who do not keep bad company? (With government being the judge, of course.)

If a right requires government permission to exercise, then it ceases to be a right. It becomes a state privilege.

Meanwhile, a further shift is occurring. The debate is leaving behind not only fundamental principles but also raw evidence and statistics. Advocates of gun control simply lose the argument if it rests on hard data. Scholars like John Lott have meticulously documented how gun ownership decreases rather than increases violence. Regarding the most controversial of all gun types — assault rifles — Lott states in the Wall Street Journal,

Since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in September 2004, murder and overall violent-crime rates have fallen. In 2003, the last full year before the law expired, the U.S. murder rate was 5.7 per 100,000 people, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report. By 2011, the murder rate fell to 4.7 per 100,000 people. One should also bear in mind that just 2.6% of all murders are committed using any type of rifle.

The consequences of the question

Who is mentally ill?

In an article entitled “Obama Taking Over Psychiatry,” Dr. Lee Hieb argues that government should not be the one to decide. She writes,

The use of psychiatry against dissidents in the Soviet Union was one of the major human rights scandals of the 1970s and 1980s.… [E]stablishing a dictatorship that pretends to be a republic requires a stealthy way of silencing opponents.… What better way than to be labeled mentally ill?”

Allowing the federal government to define mental illness, screen for it, and maintain a database does not necessarily lead to the psychiatric internment of dissidents. That is the most extreme possible consequence.

More likely outcomes include

  • gun control via a circuitous route;
  • a federal database of highly personal information on people who have committed no crime;
  • a further erosion of medical privacy;
  • the loss of constitutionally guaranteed rights by anyone who seeks help for a mental problem;
  • a cementing of the criminal and medical systems;
  • a de facto ban on gun ownership for those whom the government deems hostile.


There is, however, a salutary backlash against the medicalization of gun ownership. Various Republicans in Congress are speaking out. Senator Chuck Grassley objected to the CDC being involved in gun research, saying,

Lawful gun ownership is not a disease. It is a constitutionally protected, individual right.… The president said that we suffer from an — quote, “epidemic of violence,” end of quote. Although there is too much violence in America, violent crime rates are at the lowest level in 50 years.

State-controlled psychiatry is a terrifying weapon, especially when it is used to determine who has rights.

Every individual should be able to be eccentric, different, and even self-destructive. As long as the behavior harms no one else, it is no business of authority. To screen people for potentially dangerous behavior is a form of pre-crime diligence that gives government an almost unlimited power over anyone it targets. It is a tool of social control, not safety.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).