Gun Violence and Mental Health

In the wake of two mass shootings in the past two weeks, gun control is once again on the national agenda. With a Democratic majority in Congress, there has been much hope among gun-control advocates that laws can finally be passed to deal with the wave of mass shootings that have plagued the nation for decades. 

At the moment, the main measure being discussed is expanding background checks, an idea that has garnered some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Senator Pat Toomey, (R-Pa.) stated that his goal is to “Make it more difficult for people that we all agree should not have firearms, make it more difficult for them to get firearms. That is violent criminals, the dangerously mentally ill.”

While this may seem like a good idea at first glance, there’s some troubling subtext to what Toomey is expressing, and what it might mean for any bills that pass through Congress. Because he doesn’t clarify what he means by “dangerously mentally ill,” Toomey is repeating a common point among politicians that always follows mass shootings: gun violence, at its heart, is an issue of mental health. 

It’s an incredibly misleading idea. According to Mental Health America, homicides committed by the mentally ill only account for about 3-5% of gun-related homicides in the country. Furthermore, nearly 50% of all Americans are diagnosed with some sort of mental illness in their lifetime, the vast majority of whom never engage in any sort of violence whatsoever. Finally, the number of people killed in mass shootings carried out by people with diagnosed mental health disorders only accounts for about 1% of all gun-related deaths in the US. With such a small amount of gun violence attributed to the mentally ill, any law that attempts to prevent people with mental health disorders from getting guns would be grossly ineffective.

That’s not the only problem. Creating laws that ban the mentally ill from owning guns falsely perpetuates the harmful stereotype that mentally ill people are dangerous. It miscategorizes and marginalizes an entire group of people. Furthermore, gun owners might be less likely to seek psychiatric help if they believe their diagnosis could lead to them losing their guns. 

I am not saying the United States shouldn’t implement stronger gun control laws or that background checks are a bad idea. But denying an entire population of Americans the rights that are granted to their fellow citizens is discrimination, pure and simple. We should be focused on helping people with mental illness, not blaming them for the epidemic of violence that is raging across our country. 

Congress should seize this opportunity to try to deal with this problem in a concrete, effective manner. But whatever solution they propose, one thing is clear: discrimination against the mentally ill is not it.