Truly, the right to bear firearms is not something that should be in the domain of the psychiatrist, but in our current landscape, it’s fallen into our realm. Personally, (as opposed to professionally), it seems to me that there is no reason that someone needs to own an assault weapon, and Americans somehow survived without them for 10 years from 1994 to 2004 during a national ban on assault weapons, inspired in part by the massacre of children in a 1989 mass shooting at a Stockton, Calif., school, followed in 1993 by a street shooting where eight people were killed in San Francisco.
A CNN poll conducted in 1993 revealed that 73% of those polled opposed the manufacture, sale, or possession of assault weapons, and back then, the politics of gun control were less partisan: Former Republican President Ronald Reagan supported legislation to make them illegal. The ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, and mass shooters have been able to obtain these weapons legally and have used them for many of the highly publicized massacres we read about, now several times a year.
What shocks me is that we manufacture these weapons to allow for rapid and efficient discharge, we make these firearms easily accessible to anyone who wants them in more than 40 states, and then we are surprised when people use them to do exactly what they were designed to do: kill lots of people quickly. Those who oppose bans on these weapons insist that terrorists will find other ways: They will use illegal weapons, bombs made from pressure cookers, biologic agents, or explosives. They may be right; that doesn’t mean our government needs to make it easy for gunmen to massacre innocent people.
Until recently, the discussion about mass murder somehow pitted mental illness against gun control, so like it or not, psychiatry was pulled into the discussion of mass murder. Does this make sense? Very little of gun violence takes the form of these highly publicized mass murders – perhaps 1%. But if you’ve turned on CNN lately, they get a lot of air time, while the deaths of countless others – dozens a day in our gun-drenched cities – are now just part of the routine risks of life. If you hold your definition of mass murders to the deaths of four victims in a public place, then most mass murders are what we see in the news: Aurora, Newtown, Fort Hood, Isla Vista, and the list goes on. Of those shooters, roughly half had some history of some kind of mental illness. If you enlarge the definition, as some do, to include any shooting where four or more victims die, then the association with mental illness drops. Many of these killings are domestic and gang violence, or deaths that occur during the commission of another crime.
Overall, it is estimated that less than 10% of gun murders are caused by mental illness, and the politically correct mantra of the time is to point out that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than to perpetrate it. Finally, most gun deaths are suicides and not homicides – a distinction not made by CNN.
Despite the staggering rise in gun deaths in our country, and the clear link between gun availability and gun deaths, our federal legislators are stuck; no new gun legislation has passed. Our Congress has made the quiet statement after Newtown that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is remarkably powerful, and perhaps the story was over when we decided that killing children is acceptable. If that’s not enough, Congress was not propelled to action when one of their own was shot in the head during a massacre.
If I feel frustrated and let off steam by tweeting, how awful former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords must feel that her former colleagues have not embraced her advocacy actions with Americans for Responsible Solutions .
Over the last week, we’ve seen Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) stage a 15-hour filibuster on two gun safety amendments. One would close the terror gap; the other sought to expand background checks for firearms purchases. Both measures failed , as did two other gun control measures in the Senate. We’ve also seen House Democrats conduct a sit-in in an effort to force gun control votes. We can’t even agree that those under FBI surveillance for terrorist activities and those on a no-fly list should not be allowed to purchase firearms of any type, including assault rifles. The response is that the right to own guns is protected by the Constitution and can’t be denied without a judicial process.
In the case of those with mental illnesses, individual states do not allow for such protections. In New York, the NYSAFE Act allows that patients can be reported to the state, then placed on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, to prevent gun purchases if a therapist believes a patient is at risk of violence. There needs to be no dangerous act and no history of hospitalization to set this in motion, just a therapist’s belief. And all patients who are involuntarily hospitalized in New York are placed in the database.
California is different with its efforts to keep guns from those with mental disorders: Anyone brought in for a psychiatric evaluation by law enforcement or involuntarily hospitalized from an ER on what is commonly known as a “ 5150 hold, ” loses the right to own a gun for 5 years. There is no hearing at that point, and those who are later released at the commitment hearing do not get their gun rights back.
In Maryland, where I live, the restrictions are a mixed bag: Anyone who remains in a psychiatric hospital for more than 30 days, voluntarily or otherwise and without regard to dangerousness, loses his right to own a gun. In addition, more recent legislation has added that at commitment hearings, the administrative law judge determines whether the patient may retain gun rights based on an assessment of his dangerousness toward others.
Each state is different, but for psychiatric patients who are lawful gun owners, seeking help can be a mixed bag, and they certainly do not get the national civil rights protections that we afford terror suspects. Does the fear of losing the right to bear arms play into a hunter’s decision to seek mental health care? It’s hard to imagine that it would not. While we advocate for decreasing stigma and getting care for those who need help, we also erect barriers and increase stigma in this odd mixed-message public health endeavor.
Given the vocal nature of gun control advocates, it’s hard not to wonder whether the unwillingness of Congress to pass laws that might make us safer is about the will of the people or the dollar amount that legislatures receive from the NRA. I am sure there are readers who disagree with me and feel that more guns in the hands of “good guys” make us all safer, but I continue to find it interesting that mental illness does not cause mass murder – at least not with the numbers we see in the United States – in countries with stricter gun control.
Those who advocate for gun rights remain unconcerned about the high incidence of guns and suicide. Many believe that people should have the right to take their own lives, and if a gun were not available, another means would be found. In some cases, there is no doubt that this is true. In others, we worry that an easily accessible gun in the hands of a suicidal person has a very high rate of mortality, and there is no room for second thoughts or chances after an impulsive decision.
Psychiatry has been lassoed here – guns are our domain whether we want them to be or not – and we already are starting to see patients who want us to advocate for their right to retain their firearms. While I can’t imagine taking on the responsibility or liability of saying my patient (or anyone else) is safe with a firearm, there may be moments where it seems there is little choice, especially when a firearm is required for the patient’s employment. In the meantime, I keep hoping our legislators will wake up and come to their senses.
Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care,” forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press in fall 2016.