Why Gun Laws Targeting ‘Crazy People’ Would Have Little Benefit
But people are only talking about two of them — the deaths of TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward by Vester Flanagan (aka Bryce Williams). Flanagan was a disgruntled former worker at the local TV station where the three of them briefly worked at the same time for about 9 months in 2012.
And one of the victims’ fathers — Andy Parker — has now made it his mission in life to increase common sense gun control laws in the U.S. Targeting “crazy people.”
Unfortunately, had his laws been in place, they likely wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy — or most tragedies like this.
The New York Times has the story, noting Mr. Parker’s stance on gun control laws:
“I’m for the Second Amendment,” he said on CNN Thursday morning, “but there has to be a way to force politicians who are cowards in the pockets of the N.R.A. to make sensible laws to make sure crazy people can’t get guns.” Citing previous killings by people with mental illnesses, Mr. Parker asked, “How many Alisons will it take?”
Indeed, you probably won’t find too many people objecting to taking guns out of the hands of people who have a mental illness — they are an easy scapegoat. That is, as long as you don’t engage any critical thinking skills.
But since most murder by guns aren’t committed by people with a mental illness, logic tells us that even if such laws were passed, they would do little to the nation’s murder rate.
When 41-year-old Vester Flanagan killed two journalists from the Roanoke TV station where he once worked, he apparently had some issues. One news report noted:
Flanagan’s hair-trigger temper became evident at least 15 years ago at WTWC-TV in Tallahassee, Florida, said Don Shafer, who hired him there in 1999. Shafer recalled Flanagan as a good reporter and a “clever, funny guy” — but said he also had conflicts with co-workers “to the point where he was threatening people.”
At the Roanoke TV station, his boss told him to contact the company’s employee assistance program to get help for his anger issues. It’s unclear he ever did, and eventually, he was fired.
In professional parlance, a professional might have diagnosed Flanagan with something called Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Or, given the apparent fax he sent before the murders, he may have qualified for a diagnosis of some kind of delusional disorder. Given his death, we will never know whether Flanagan actually was mentally ill (armchair diagnosing aside).1
No Treatment, No Diagnosis
Without seeking treatment, a person cannot be diagnosed with a mental disorder. So in Andy Parker’s language, you can’t tell a person is “crazy” if they’ve never seen someone who can diagnose them with an actual mental condition. This is apparently the case with Flanagan — he never sought treatment, so he had no interaction with the mental health system.
Therefore, he had no official diagnosis — no record of being “crazy.” So even a gun control law targeting people like Flanagan would’ve still allowed him to purchase a gun this past June in order to carry out the murders.
Where Is the Line Drawn Removing Citizens’ Constitutional Rights?
Here’s where it gets real hairy — what sort of mental disorder diagnosis would limit your Constitutional rights? Would a simple diagnosis of panic disorder 5 years ago forever restrict your access to purchase a gun? How about a personality disorder? What about ADHD?
For how long do we remove a person’s Constitutional rights? Forever? Until they’ve been successfully treated? Who determines if the treatment was “successful” or not?
We all believe — wrongly, of course — we know a “crazy” person when we see them. But this is usually after-the-fact, after some heinous crime has been committed. And it flies in the face of the actual statistics — that most murders are committed by ordinary, sane people who kill someone they know.
And of course, most people who have intermittent explosive disorder don’t murder someone. Such a person is a very unusual person — a statistical anomaly. The exact kind of anomaly that no law could ever account for (without also drawing in millions of innocent citizens who would never commit the crime of murder).
Tougher Gun Laws. Period.
I don’t object to tougher, common sense gun laws. I object to using arbitrary filters on such laws — such as the mentally ill — that sound good but actually do little to stop crimes of this nature.2 I think we live in a country that values our freedom to own firearms more than that of a human life — the exact opposite of what it should be.
Andy Parker’s heart is in the right place. But targeting a population that is more often the victim of crime than its perpetrator seems completely contrary to the statistics and evidence. It is an understandable emotional reaction to a complex problem with no easy solution.
So while I grieve for these two individuals involved in this tragedy, I also grieve for the other 36 people who were killed but didn’t garner national headlines. Because until we tackle our gun problem in the U.S., another 38 people will die today. And tomorrow. And the next day. Targeting people with mental illness will not lower these gruesome statistics.
The New York Times: Virginia Killings Produce Vow From Alison Parker’s Father
Image courtesy of CNN coverage.
- It is, of course, easy to spot a “crazy” person after-the-fact, but much, much harder to predict violence beforehand, especially without a history of specific violent acts. [↩]
- A law like this also does nothing to stop people from borrowing guns from friends or family to commit crimes, or buying one at a gun show. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2018). Why Gun Laws Targeting ‘Crazy People’ Would Have Little Benefit. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-gun-laws-targeting-crazy-people-would-have-little-benefit/