Part I: Mental Health Checks Are Not The Answer To Gun Violence
Part II: Guns And Crazy Men
The Capital Times notes that Ann Althouse weighed in on the issue of gun violence and mental health checks. Her blog “lights up” on this issue, according to the report. In fact Ann does have a smart and whimsical style of writing, interspersed with humor, and so one must usually read her thoughts more than one time in order to make sure that you’re not misinterpreting her prose.
But I think I’ve got what she says this time around, and I have some difficulty with her views.
Bonavia implies that we ought to make policy based on the percentages. But then she says, make a pervasive law that applies to everyone, without mentioning the very small percentage of perpetrators of gun violence within the truly vast category of Americans who buy guns. And by the way, the category “gun violence” lumps things together. Gun control has become a hot issue because of a few massacres. If you make a category out of the set of incidents that has inflamed present-day opinion, people suffering from mental illness seem to be 100% of the perpetrators! You only get your very small percentage if you throw in other types of incidents, such as gangsters wiping each other out. Wake me up when 90% of Americans want to do something about that. And explain to me how background checks have any curative power over that problem.
The appeal to statistics and reason falls flat when you shape it to suit the policy you already want.
“Only 4 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness,” Dilip Jeste, the president of the [American Psychiatric Association], says in a statement. “About one quarter of all Americans have a mental disorder in any given year, and only a very small percentage of them will ever commit violent crimes.”See what I mean? Questions for Dr. Jeste: 1. What percentage of school shootings are committed by persons with mental illness? 2. If we cut the category “violent crimes” down to massacre-type shootings where the motive isn’t robbery and the victim isn’t someone with whom the shooter has a personal dispute, what percentage of those crimes are committed by persons with mental illness? 3. If we break the category “mental disorder” into subparts, so that depression and schizophrenia aren’t lumped together, is there any category within which you cannot say that only very small percentage will ever commit violent crimes? 4. In your effort to shield the mentally ill from unnecessary stigma, are you giving cover to a set of persons who could and should be identified as dangerous?
Ann might be affirming the consequent, where given some mental malady, since some shooter (or several shooters) commit[s] a mass killing, therefore killings will be committed only by those with the identified mental malady. But this error in propositional logic is too fundamental and I don’t think Ann is arguing in this way.
More likely, Ann is arguing (or has argued) in a probabilistic manner herself, that the preponderance of mass shootings have been committed by those with some identified mental malady. Therefore, prohibiting people with that specific malady from owning weapons will decrease the number of mass shootings.
If I have interpreted Ann correctly, take careful note of the unstated presuppositions in her argument. First, she is assuming that mental health professionals can correctly identify that malady, and second, she is assuming that only persons with that specific malady (or perhaps one or two others) will commit mass shootings.
Neither appears to bear the weight of scrutiny. The mental health professionals I cite in the earlier reports on mental health checks and gun ownership state categorically that they cannot identify illness in many circumstances. They also state rather categorically that violence of all kinds – mass shootings or not – are not a function of specific mental illnesses.
I usually roll my eyes at the lack of scholarship and honesty when I read Huffington Post. But today there was refreshing honesty from yet another mental health professional concerning what his own profession cannot accomplish.
As we debate the steps to reducing gun violence in the society a couple points need to be understood: 1. The link between violent crime and mental illness is weak, and 2. Mental health professionals are poor at predicting anyone’s propensity for any specific behavior, including homicide.
Although it is mass shootings, particularly the massacre of school children in Newtown, that capture our attention and have accelerated the current discussion, Americans for the most part kill each other with guns in ones and twos. Of the total number of gun deaths in this country, around 30,000 a year, the majority are not the result of mental illness, but of ordinary human emotions like anger, hate, greed, and despair. In fact, about half of all shootings are suicides.
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The only real predictor of future violence in anyone turns out to be a past history of violent behavior. Absent this, professionals are little better than the average citizen at identifying those likely to harm others. Many people report violent fantasies (remember your reaction to the last person to cut you off in traffic); few act on them.
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As we confront the reality of these systemic deficits, however, we ought not to do so under the illusion that we are responding to the problem of gun violence. These are separate and largely unrelated issues, both of which deserve our immediate attention and informed response.
It is true that mental health checks can be abused and thus rights denied for incorrect reasons, and it is true that mental health professionals often disagree, and it is true that given a reason to deny rights, a totalitarian state will usually find a way to use it for totalitarian purposes. All of these things concern me and in fact militate against such checks being a necessary prerequisite for gun ownership, in my opinion (See earlier discussions of the checks we must go through in my own county to obtain a concealed handgun permit, which I do have, and also the “fitness for duty” program and managerial observation we must go through having unescorted access to nuclear power plants – both checks being pretty much worthless in my view, and yet subject to unconstitutional denial of rights).
But the objection raised by the mental health professionals goes beyond my own objections. In every case, they are saying that there is no identity between those who commit violent crime and any specific mental malady, and beyond that, they are little better than the average person at identifying propensity to violence anyway.
Laws only imperfectly supply incentive for certain behavior and disincentive for the opposite. But what laws cannot do is ensure that certain behavior does not obtain. That is a burden too far for legislation and ethics. These issues ensconce squarely in the domain of morality, and laws do not change that. Evil cannot be legislated (or medicated) away, and the best amelioration of risk associated with gun violence is to be prepared for self defense (including elimination of gun free zones).
Similarly, mental health professionals have weighed in telling us that their profession cannot possibly hope to shoulder the burden we wish to place on it. It’s more than simply it is subject to abuse, which it is, or that the doctor-patient relationship is invaded, which it is. It is that the “science” – if it can be called that at all, is simply incapable of sustaining the burden of gun violence, or any other form of violence, for that matter. They cannot prevent it, regardless how much we may wish them to.