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September 22, 2019

9/4/2019 2:52:00 PM
Editorial: Blaming the Mentally Ill for Gun Violence Is a Diversion, Not a Solution

The culture of violence in this country will not likely be tamed any time soon. While there are stalwart advocates for reasonable gun laws and strong judges willing to render articulate decisions about the regulation of firearms, the ether is full of misperceptions about firearms, owners of firearms and the law.

Regrettably, many politicians and members of the media stoke these misperceptions for what appears to be temporary moments of grandeur.

Killing sprees in this country seem to be on the rise, and in their wake has been an escalation of rhetoric about keeping guns out of the hands of the “wrong people.”

And the “wrong people,” according to pundits who prefer rant and bias to sound, hard data, are not people with a history of violence or problems with anger or avowed hatred of some group. The group most often referenced by politicians and media hounds as unfit to own guns is the group of people much more likely to be victims of crime rather than perpetrators – people with a mental illness.

Conflation of persons with a mental illness with persons who go on killing sprees shows an almost willful eagerness to blame anyone but the lone wolf who spews his amassed weapons, anger and hatred on relatives, coworkers, strangers or an amalgam of these.

A study published in 2015 in the Annals of Epidemiology looked at “mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy.” The authors were Jeffrey W. Swanson, Ph.D.; Elizabeth McGinty Ph.D., M.S.; Seen Fazel, M.D., and Vickie M. Mays, Ph.D.

The authors found “Media accounts of mass shootings by disturbed individuals galvanize public attention and reinforce popular belief that mental illness often results in violence. Epidemiologic studies show that the large majority of people with serious mental illnesses are never violent. However, mental illness is strongly associated with increased risk of suicide, which accounts for over half of U.S. firearms–related fatalities.”

The website mentalhealth.gov offers these facts: “The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent, and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don't even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.”

Yet many politicians are soothing their consciences and mollifying their bases by vilifying people with a mental illness.

Even the mainstream media have fallen prey to that kind of thinking. In the Sept. 1 telecast of NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd allowed Florida Senator Rick Scott to declare that keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people would somehow cure America’s violence. Mr. Todd did nothing to check this spew of falsehood, and his failure to challenge Sen. Scott added his own voice to those who vilify those with a mental illness.

On a more local level, we are grateful for a recent local broadcast – the origin of which we have not been able to ascertain – in which a mental health professional was allowed, uninterrupted, to lay out the case that persons with a mental illness are often victims of crimes but still publicly blamed as a group for violent acts most would not consider committing.

If we are indeed to change our violent culture, we need to acknowledge the players – the real perpetrators and the politicians, broadcasters and others who divert the spotlight and the conversation from the active continued problem of gun ownership to the convenience and complacency of blaming a largely innocuous and vulnerable population.

Blaming mass shootings on people with a mental illness is a ploy to divert attention from the real problem the Trump administration and many others do not want to address: There is no valid reason for people to own assault weapons. And the idea that people have a Second Amendment right to own assault weapons is simply false.

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held on two occasions, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller v. District of Columbia, that local governments may ban assault weapons, adopting one part of the language of the Heller case that the Second Amendment “does not imperil every law regulating firearms.”

Cook County, the City of Evanston and other local governments have banned assault weapons. We encourage the nation and all other governmental bodies to ban them as well.  It is cowardly for any of them not to do so.







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