You may have missed it, given the uncapped pipeline of news raging out of Washington, but on Friday, February 28, President Trump signed into law a Republican-backed measure to restore gun-owning rights to people afflicted with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. The rollback would relieve some 75 thousand mentally ill people from accountability to background checks.
Trump’s action struck down a congressional regulation spurred by President Obama as a response to the notorious 2012 massacre of 20 young schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut. That particular butchery was carried out, via a (legally purchased) semiautomatic Bushmaster XM 15-E2S assault rifle, by the 20-year-old Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut. Lanza had begun that morning by putting four bullets into the head of his mother at their home with a (legally purchased) .22-caliber Savage MK II-F bolt action rifle. Then, carrying the Bushmaster and two (legally purchased) handguns, a Glock 20SF and a 9 mm Sig Sauer P226, Lanza climbed into the family car and drove off to the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. He used the Bushmaster to shoot his way through a locked front-entrance door, then stalked the corridors and classrooms, gunning down children and teachers in small random clusters. In addition to his tally of 6- and 7-year-olds, Lanza murdered the principal, the school psychologist, three teachers and a teacher’s aide, and wounded two teachers. At least two of the teachers had been shielding children with their bodies when the Bushmaster’s bullets struck them. The dead teachers included the school psychologist and a part-time behavioral therapist.
Lanza, who had methodically paused to reload in the course of his meandering spree, then withdrew the Glock and shot himself in the head as police closed in.
A search into voluminous police reports later revealed that the young man underwent consultation at the Yale Child Study Center as an adolescent, and had been prescribed an antidepressant. The files revealed no diagnosis of serious mental illness.
Obama’s measure had infuriated Republicans and the National Rifle Association from the outset. (Technically, the rule required the Social Security Administration to inform the FBI about disability insurance recipients with mental impairments—and who needed a third party to manage their benefits–effectively disqualifying them from buying guns.)
It was the Republican congressman Sam Johnson of Texas who introduced legislation to block the bill. (Around this same time, in late 2016, Johnson, in his role as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, also released a plan that would drastically reduce that program’s benefits.)
Johnson’s GOP colleagues (along, of course, with the National Rifle Association) had condemned the Obama order as unconstitutional. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, according to one report (https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2017-02-14/senate-wants-to-block-rule-on-guns-and-mentally-ill), went so far as to predict that before you knew it, the order would be keeping folks with eating and sleeping disorders from buying guns! (This line of reasoning might qualify as a suitable Republican party motto in its Latin form, Reductio ad Absurdum.)
All of which is by way of saying—brace yourself—that yet another of the most morally fraught public crises of our time, the question of powerful firearms in the hands of the mentally ill, has been distilled into ideology.
Let me acknowledge the two most formidable arguments posed by those who agree with the congressional GOPs who voted to roll back the rule.
One argument involves the impossibility of determining who, among the mentally ill, is a threat to commit deadly violence, and who is not. Homicidal schizophrenia is not predictable. Mental illness itself is not predictable. Sandy Hook was not predictable. (See Adam Lanza.) Therefore, the Obama rule was prejudicial, to the disadvantage of nonviolent people with serious mental illnesses. Or so one may persuasively argue.
The other argument restates the familiar Second Amendment case held by gun-rights advocates: restricting firearms possession by anyone is unconstitutional. Period.
Is there a logically airtight counter-argument to these positions? If there is, you won’t find it here. I am not by temperament an absolutist—not on any topic. Dammit. I kind of envy those who are, though I don’t much care to be around them. Absolutism, like carpet-bombing, gets rid of a lot of thorny impediments. It just ain’t my style.
And yet I believe that the new Trump law is wrong; an unnecessary risk to public safety, including the safety of people with eating and sleeping disorders; and an affront to those trying hard to invest the troubled American mental healthcare scene with clarity and moral purpose. I’ll explain, in my timorous, hanky-twisting way:
Schizophrenia is different. Guns are different. Each is different from its category on an order of magnitude that sets it apart from recourse to fixed ideas. Each poses a unique menace to safety, to the Self, to human life. When combined—when a firearm is made accessible to a schizophrenic person—these menaces increase in potency, even though any given afflicted gun-owner is statistically unlikely to commit violence.
Let’s take guns first. What is there left to say? Guns are instruments of killing. Increasingly, rationalizations aside, they are manufactured specifically to kill people. In this they are categorically different from (more intentionally lethal than) any other consumer product. The ideology of unconstrained firearms ownership has survived and hardened in the face of every interrogation of the Second Amendment’s ambiguities, every conceivable appeal to moral restraint, the safety of children in the household, common sense, self-evidently sensible safety measures. No argument I can make here will shift one grain of sand in that desolate desert. I might mention, for example, that my younger brother Jim, in the midst of a marital crisis in the 1970s, turned his hunting shotgun on himself and blew a hole in his head, leaving a widow and two young daughters. (Jim was untreated for any mental illness, and I do not take up his suicide in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.) The responses to such tragedies from the gun-rights people are inscribed in the cosmos: Tough titty. These things happen. Shoulda seen a shrink. Law-abiding citizens’ rights. The only way to deter a suicidal man with a gun is with. . .
So let’s move on to schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia (along with its related afflictions such as bipolarity) is a brain disorder without parallel in human history. It is not a mood, reparable by therapy or good fortune. It is not an attitude, responsive to correction or coercion. It is not curable, though in many of the afflicted its symptoms may be controlled by antipsychotic medication. Such medication is resisted by a great many sufferers, whose judgment is crippled by the frequent companion scourge known as anosognosia, or the incapacity to understand that one is ill. The potential calamities enabled by anosognosia are self-evident. Thus, at least as it seems to me and thousands of others, schizophrenia victims require care and treatment that is different—more case-specific, more morally nuanced and always more undergirded with psychiatric insight—from treatment given to “normal” people in crises. This may mean, amidst hundreds of other considerations, keeping firearms out of the reach of certain mentally ill people—say, disability insurance recipients with mental impairments and who needed a third party to manage their benefits.
For understandable reasons—furthering fear and stigma, for instance—mental-illness advocates hesitate to emphasize or even admit the fact that psychosis and guns can combine to spread carnage. (This is one reason why the lessons of Sandy Hook have remained tragically muted.) Yet, as D.J. Jaffe, the outspoken director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, has written: “. . .4 percent of those with mental illness are affected by serious ailments, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, causing them to hallucinate or become delusional and psychotic. When these people go untreated they do have a higher incidence of violence than the general population. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/violence-statistics.html It’s an unpleasant truth that the mental health industry has encouraged politicians to ignore. Without recognizing the problem, policymakers won’t take steps to fix it.”
And so here we are, preparing to cope with one more feckless and gratuitous disruption of the arduous project to make society safer—not only for potential victims of people in violent psychosis, but for the mentally ill themselves.
I will not pretend to vouch absolutely for the nosological claims I have advanced here. No one can. That is due to schizophrenia’s properties as different.
But enough disclaiming. I believe that mixing guns and serious mental illness is an abomination.