BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
With every new mass shooting in this country resulting in casualties, people with mental illness are singled out for blame. While access to the United States' mental health care system is woefully lacking, the proliferation of guns and the ease with which anyone can get them - a central cause of mass shootings - is typically swept under the rug.
Two years ago this past weekend, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults with his mother's Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The nation was shocked, saddened and outraged. If there were ever an opportunity for the implementation of some very basic, common sense laws controlling guns, that was the time.
However, the National Rifle Association applied full-court pressure, Congress failed to act. National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre blamed "delusional killers" for violence in the United States, and provocatively called for a "national registry" of persons with mental illness. Instead of any meaningful gun control measures, pro-gun advocates and their media representatives obscured the issue and blamed mentally ill people for the mass shootings epidemic.
The causes of acts of mass violence are a lot more complex than gun advocates would want us to believe. "According to a new study by two Vanderbilt University scholars, mental illness is wrongly used as a scapegoat when it comes to extreme acts of violence," Elizabeth Kulze recently reported.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health titled "Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms," co-authored by Vanderbilt University's Jonathan M. Metzl, MD, PhD, with the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society and the Departments of Sociology and Psychiatry, and Kenneth T. MacLeish, PhD, with the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society and the Department of Anthropology, maintains that, after mass shootings, "four central assumptions ... frequently arise in the aftermath of mass shootings": (1) "Mental illness causes gun violence, (2) Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens, (3) US mass shootings teach us to fear mentally ill loners, and (4) Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass shooters, gun control "won't prevent" another Tucson, Aurora or Newtown.
While these assumptions are correct in some cases, the "notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics. These issues become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when 'mentally ill' ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat."
"Gun discourse after mass shootings often perpetuates the fear that 'some crazy person is going to come shoot me,'" says Metzl, the study's lead author. And that's what happened after Newtown: The media had a field day trumpeting such headlines as Psychology Today's "Was Adam Lanza an undiagnosed schizophrenic?" and The New York Times' "Lanza's acts of slaughter . . . strongly suggest undiagnosed schizophrenia." It probably isn't all that surprising, but conservative commentator Anne Coulter provocatively proclaimed that "Guns don't kill people - the mentally ill do."
Metzl and MacLeish point out that "It is undeniable that persons who have shown violent tendencies should not have access to weapons that could be used to harm themselves or others. However, notions that mental illness caused any particular shooting, or that advance psychiatric attention might prevent these crimes, are more complicated than they often seem."
While "each" of the above mentioned "statements is certainly true in particular instances.... Evidence strongly suggests that mass shooters are often mentally ill and socially marginalized. Enhanced psychiatric attention may well prevent particular crimes. And, to be sure, mass shootings often shed light on the need for more investment in mental health support networks or improved state laws and procedures regarding gun access.
"At the same time, the literature we surveyed suggest that these seemingly self-evident assumptions about mass shootings are replete with problematic assumptions, particularly when read against current and historical literature that address guns, violence, and mental illness more broadly. On the aggregate level, the notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereo- types a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness."
Vocative.com's Elizabeth Kulze pointed out that "The problem with these illusions, Metzl argues, is that they distract people from important issues involved in the prevention of shooting deaths in the U.S. - one being gun legislation."
"We should set our attention and gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings, because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime," Metzl says.
"Basing gun crime-prevention efforts on the mental health histories of mass shooters risks building 'common evidence' from 'uncommon things,' all while giving mental health providers the untenable responsibility of preventing the next massacre," Metzl writes.
Metzl and MacLeish conclude that "connections between mental illness and gun violence are less causal and more complex than current US public opinion and legislative action allow. US gun rights advocates are fond of the phrase 'guns don't kill people, people do.' [Our] findings ... suggest that neither guns nor people exist in isolation from social or historical influences. A growing body of data reveals that US gun crime happens when guns and people come together in particular, destructive ways. That is to say, gun violence in all its forms has a social context, and that context is not something that 'mental illness' can describe nor that mental health practitioners can be expected to address in isolation."
Consider this when thinking about the complexity of the issue: Was Cliven Bundy's posse of armed militia that faced off against law enforcement officials last spring - with seemingly every intention of shooting them down - mentally ill or violence-prone gun wielders?