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States Focus on Mental Illness + Guns in New Laws

States Focus on Mental Illness + Guns in New LawsAs though a new law would prevent violence, state legislatures across the country are “doing something” about gun violence. The only problem is their focus has been on mental illness, when most murders have little connection with mental illness, and most deaths by guns are not committed by someone with a mental illness.

But it sure makes a legislature feel good about themselves, doesn’t it? “Hey, look, we’re doing something. We’re going to keep guns out of the hands of those crazies.”

Such laws won’t even make a dent in the annual murder rate in the U.S. And at the same time legislators are “doing something,” they are reinforcing the discrimination against those with a mental illness label. Because most of the laws are focused on the labels of mental illness — not actual violent or criminal behavior.

The New York Times has the latest story, which again points out the rude reality — the numbers of people with mental illness committing murders are pretty inconsequential:

But critics say that this focus unfairly singles out people with serious mental illness, who studies indicate are involved in only about 4 percent of violent crimes and are 11 or more times as likely than the general population to be the victims of violent crime. […]

But such killings account for only a tiny fraction of gun homicides in the United States, mental health experts point out.

Besides the research indicating that little violent crime can be linked to perpetrators who are mentally ill, studies show that those crimes are far more likely to involve battery — punching another person, for example — than weapons, which account for only 2 percent of violent crimes committed by the mentally ill.

The reality of murders in the U.S. are simple — they are committed with handguns, they are committed by people who usually know the victim, and the person who commits the murder is rarely someone with mental illness.

The focus of the new laws is basically to remove the constitutional right of Americans with a mental illness diagnose to own a gun. New York state’s new law is quite clear:

New York’s provision, Dr. Monahan said, differs from virtually every other state’s laws in allowing guns to be taken not only from those committed against their will but also from patients who enter treatment voluntarily.

Umm, so maybe people who value their constitutional rights may be less inclined to seek out mental health treatment in the future — especially under the fear that if they say the wrong thing to a health or mental health professional, they may find those rights trampled upon.

Because of this, some criminal justice experts say it makes more sense to pass laws addressing behavior, rather than a diagnosis of mental illness.

In Indiana, for example, firearms can be confiscated from people deemed a potential threat, whether or not they have a mental illness.

Problem is, professionals have a lousy track record of determining what is a legitimate “potential threat.” They almost always err on the side of caution, which results in taking action when no action is needed.

Involuntarily Commitment Threshold Lowered

States also want to make it easier to involuntarily commit people with mental illness. I guess the thinking is, “If we find the crazies with the guns before they use them, and get them treatment (whether they want it or not), they won’t use the guns to kill others.” It’s a pretty shaky line of reasoning there (especially in the service of reducing gun violence).

The threshold of being an imminent danger to oneself or others is now being lowered to simply a belief that there is a “substantial probability” of potential harm to oneself or others.

To me, these are all just legal semantics, because all professionals do is take a guess. Yes, it may be a somewhat educated guess, but it’s a guess nonetheless. And again, professionals will always err on the side of caution, since it’s their neck on the lines.

Mental illness is an easy scapegoat in the national discussion on gun violence. But it’s also a red herring — it has little bearing on stopping the violent acts perpetrated in this country everyday.

So while legislators across the country will pat each other on the back for “doing something” about gun violence, don’t be fooled by their smug assurances. These laws will do nothing to address the prevalence of murders — or murderous rampages — aided by weapons that can raze down dozens before any defensive action can be taken.


Read the full article: Focus on Mental Health Laws to Curb Violence Is Unfair, Some Say

States Focus on Mental Illness + Guns in New Laws

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). States Focus on Mental Illness + Guns in New Laws. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Feb 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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