The recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado, raises several questions. Among them is “Was mental illness a factor?” It appears that the answer is yes. This leads to the question “Should a person with a severe mental illness have firearm rights?”
The answer is complicated, because not everyone with mental illness is going to commit mass murder. However, mental illness is often a factor in mass murder. So the answer is “It depends on the case.”
Why the answer is yes–in part
Not all people with severe mental illness are going to commit mass murder, and therefore should not be treated as if they are. I remember applying for a job via a job coach, and the first question the employer asked was about my risk of violence. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job despite being well qualified.
In addition to this, people with a severe mental illness are statistically more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. In this case, owning a firearm for self defense could be beneficial.
Also, it raises questions about Constitutional rights. The Second Amendment allows for the right to bear arms, and the founders wrote that with firearms in mind. Should a medical diagnosis be grounds for denying someone his or her Constitutional rights? If so, where do we stop? Should a person with severe mental illness be subject to no-warrant searches in order to be sure they don’t have firearms?
Why the answer is no–in part
Guns are designed for one thing–to kill whatever they are fired at. This in and of itself should give us reason to think very carefully about who can have a firearm. The Second Amendment is not absolute; many people with criminal records are not allowed to have firearms. In addition, some states have laws regarding whether or not mental illness is considered in issuing a firearm.
Indiana, where I live, is not one of them. Even though I spent 13 months in the state hospital system, am on court commitment for mental health treatment, and have threatened to shoot people, I still have my firearm rights. I can even get a conceal-carry permit with my therapist’s permission. Where do I start with how wrong that is? I have no business owning a gun.
In neighboring Illinois, the law used to be that if a person is held in the psychiatric ward, he or she can not purchase a gun for five years. I don’t know if that’s still a law or not, but either way, this is a law that makes sense. It allows for a period of time to see if the person is stable enough to own a firearm.
There used to be a federal law that required a gun dealer to notify the FBI when a person with an involuntary psychiatric hospitalization purchases a firearm. I don’t know whether this is still on the books or not, but it’s also a law that makes sense. Since so few psychiatric hospitalizations are involuntary, this law identifies who is the most likely to be unstable or resistant to treatment. Sadly, the law was rarely followed.
Why a case-by-case basis is crucial
No two cases of borderline personality disorder (BPD) are the same. The same is true with any mental disorder. Therefore, when determining whether or not a person with mental illness should have firearm rights, a case-by-case basis is crucial.
Factors in granting or denying firearm rights should include past history of violence, history of compliance with treatment, history of suicidal and homicidal behavior, and above all, the opinion of mental health professionals regarding the likelihood of violence. While this would not guarantee that the person would not commit a violent crime, it would significantly lower the likelihood of a violent person with mental illness getting a firearm.
At Columbine, Eric Harris had a history of mental illness. At Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho had a history of mental illness. At the Tuscon, Arizona, shooting, Jared Lee Loughner had a history of mental illness. Each time there were signs that something was wrong. Each time, they got their weapons legally. If there was a way to keep people with severe mental illness and a potential for violence from getting firearms, we could avoid the next one. And that would make all the trouble of screening worth it.