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Should People with a Mental Illness Have Firearm Rights?

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?”

Should the mentally ill have a right to buy a gun?

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.

20 thoughts on “Should People with a Mental Illness Have Firearm Rights?”

  1. The Second Amendment was solely created to have a well-armed militia, which has been created via the National Guard. Therefore, I believe no one should have the right to own a semi-automatic or similar weapon. These weapons were created with one intent – to kill quickly kill a large number of people. There is no way the average person has a reason to own these types of weapons; hunters use rifles or similar weapons.

    It is not a right, but a privilege to bear arms.

    In the state I live in – Michigan – those who have a felony conviction or a mental illness diagnosis can not own a gun. Any gun. I’m willing to give up owning a gun to help safe lives.

    Regarding protecting yourself – many people are hurt or killed by their very owns when attempting to use them in self-defense.

    Also, yes, a person can kill with a knife or other weapon. But the damage is a lot less than it is with someone using a semi-automatic.

    1. Thank you for your reply. The Michigan law makes sense. Like you, I’m willing to waive my right to bear arms if it helps save lives. Sadly it’s almost impossible to have a civil discussion on how to prevent mass shootings by people with a psychiatric history thicker than a 500-pound woman and an arsenal rivaling the National Guard’s. One of my Facebook friends believes that the events in Aurora were perpetrated by the government so they would have a reason to take guns from law-abiding citizens. There’s just no reasoning with some people.

  2. If someone is clinically diagnosed with a “mental illness,” they are in a database and not entirely for bad reasons. For better and for worse, this can better avail them to resources and services to restore and maintain their wholistic well-being. Should they wish to own a weapon, such as a handgun, it is entirely appropriate (to me) that their ‘right’ is properly reviewed by professionals who can help finalise the decision, as much as they would finalise a decision regarding medication, counseling, or hospitalisation. This is simple common sense.
    It’s not reasonable that any history of psychological treatment disqualifies a citizen of owning a weapon, but it is outright irresponsible to give public safety a backseat to a ‘right’ to own a gun. I emphatically place ‘right’ in quotation marks, because even as assuredly this is as ‘inalienable’ as other civil and human rights cited in our constitution, it is also fit to be determined on an individual basis. Some people are not healthy enough to exercise free speech, and are therefore assigned special care to better assure they are not a concern. If you publicly talk about public servants being overdue on some ‘frontier justice,’ your right to free speech will become more conditional, and rightfully so. If you do this and then expect to buy a gun, well…good luck, friend, because not only should it become more difficult, I can guarantee you that I will be among those standing in the way between you and said gun.

    1. I agree that public safety should never take a backseat to the right to own a gun. That’s why there needs to be a national standard of gun laws. Indiana’s are among the loosest in the nation–as I said in the blog post, I still have my firearm rights and I’ll be the first to say there’s no way I should own a gun. I’ve made that decision myself, but you can’t expect everyone to be that rational when it comes to mental illness and firearms. Sadly, the firearms lobby is very powerful, and seems opposed to even reasonable reform. I’ll never forget Charleton Heston’s appearing at the NRA meeting shortly after Columbine and his complete indifference to the fact that people had lost their lives.

  3. In Illinois, the law is still the same, 5 years, but you can never be in law enforcement if you have been in a hospital for a mental health diagnosis, which to me is absolutely backwards. It keeps cops from getting help if they need it.

    Illinois law states if you are cognitively disabled (although, the actual law uses the R word), you can never own a firearm, but doesn’t define what a cognitive disability is.

    1. I thought that was still the case; thanks for letting me know. As I said in the blog post, it’s a law that makes sense. I’ve only been out of the state hospital system for three years now, and the fact that I still have my firearm rights disturbs me.

  4. Agreed. Yes and No is the best way to figure out this ordeal. A federal law that monitors the posession of firearms by severely mentally unstable people or people with recent involuntary hospitilizations sounds like it could definately be beneficial. I mean, only God knows what I could of done if I had access to a gun during my much darker days. -___-

  5. I don’t think anyone has the right to carry arms with or with out a mental illness. There is no need for people to have them in their home or on their person we here in the UK manage quite well without them. I remember the last time there was a mass shooting in the states and it was published that in Texas most homes have more fire arms in them than people!!! and 1 statistic said most homes had 2-3 firearms per person!! Is this not madness itself?

    1. You raise a valid point. I was in high school the last time there was a mass shooting in the UK, and I’m 33 now. Here in America we seem to have at least one big one a year, and I’m not mentioning all the gun crimes that don’t make the papers. But Americans are crazy about their guns, and reform is slow in coming because of politics.

  6. This is a very even-handed, thorough treatment of the subject. Thank you, Ms. Oberg!
    There is another point to be made here, which is that perhaps “gun rights” don’t and shouldn’t exist for all of us, whether mentally ill or not, with very limited exceptions and tight regulations. That is my view, and it seems to me incontrovertible when we compare the U.S. and every other advanced country in the world — but I recognize that such a radical step will not happen in the U.S. in my lifetime. So many, many lives will be lost needlessly.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I’m a firm believer that our firearms laws need to be standardized, because whether or not I can own a gun depends entirely on which state I live in. In Illinois and Michigan I can’t, but in Indiana I can. How does that make sense?

      I agree that we won’t see reform in our lifetimes. The NRA is simply too powerful politically.

    1. I agree. Most people with severe mental illness are not violent. That’s why it’s difficult to determine whether or not someone with severe mental illness should have a firearm, and why said determination should be on a case by case basis. That said, if it had to be either/or, I’d say no one with a mental illness could have a gun simply because the risks of it going badly (suicide, homicide, etc.) are too high.

      Thank you for sharing.

  7. The right for firearm to people with mental illness is indeed very contradiction question. However, the issue should to treat seriously in encyclopedic manner anywhere and whenever. As far as is concerned to murdering acts that commit persons with mental illness there are many misunderstanding, as well as many misinterpretation. Generally, people with mental disorder are equally perilous such are mentally health persons. By me as clinical psychiatrist the right for firearm exhibits the potential risk for commit murdering either it is in question mentally ill person or mentally health ones. In this direction, it ought to brainstorming this delicate issue. If we continue to elaborate the murder cases in “post festum” way the situation with daily criminals act didn’t to improve importantly.

  8. Yes, the majority of the mentally ill should be able to own firearms because the majority of the mentally ill are harmless.
    President Obama said in his second debate that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill. That statement suggested that every mentally ill person is capable of violence. That isn’t true.
    I’m mentally ill and I’m not violent. I’ve never committed a crime. I haven’t even gotten a jay walking ticket. My mom is also mentally ill and she’s not violent either. She’s one of the sweetest people alive.
    Yes, it’s true that some mentally ill people are violent and those who show any signs of violent behavior shouldn’t be allowed to own guns. But Obama didn’t say that guns should be kept out of the hands of certain mentally ill people. He said that they should be kept out of the hands of all mentally ill people.
    The President thinks that the mentally ill are dangerous. That’s prejudice. Let me give you an example. Some women kill people with guns. Would it be fair if I said that because some women are violent that guns should be kept out of the hands of all women? Of course it wouldn’t be fair. It would be prejudice. And saying that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill is just as prejudice.
    Obama said that he won’t stand for the discrimination of women but he thinks the discrimination of the mentally ill is a good thing.
    Obama’s comment deeply offended me and probably offended many other mentally ill people.
    Obama tried to gain more votes with his second debate but he lost one. And if he offended other mentally ill people, he may lose more. Obama doesn’t seem to understand that the mentally ill can vote also.

  9. “In Illinois and Michigan I can’t, but in Indiana I can. How does that make sense?”
    That’s because we live in a country that gives some leniency to the individual states that’s why..

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