05/15/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

Gun Collectors and Mental Illness

Over the last several months, Wayne LaPierre and the NRA have not only helped derail basic reforms to gun laws, but they have sought to distract the American public from a meaningful discussion of common-sense regulations by demonizing the mentally ill. Although there is no statistical link between mental illness and gun violence, LaPierre has raised the specter of ultra-violent "lunatics" and "monsters" among us -- easily differentiated from stable, law-abiding citizens -- and has suggested that stopping them is the key to controlling gun violence. Legislators across the country have jumped on the LaPierre narrative as well; even the gun-loving Florida legislature recently passed an NRA-backed bill that would restrict the sale of guns to certain people deemed mentally ill.

Although LaPierre's public statements on mental health and a range of other issues have been debunked and refuted countless times, I'd nevertheless like to use his scapegoating of the mentally ill as an opportunity to consider a new mental disorder that has yet to be defined and diagnosed but runs rampant throughout American society: the desire to accumulate weapons whose only purpose is to slaughter human beings. The question is, in the wake of Sandy Hook, Aurora, and the sixty other massacres we've seen over the last 30 years alone -- not to mention the thousands of gun deaths we experience each year -- at what point do we begin to raise questions about the psychological stability of people who amass such weapons in the first place?

As I started considering the definition of mental illness, I decided to consult the American Psychiatric Association's authoritative guide to mental health disorders, now in its fourth edition (and about to be updated), called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM for short). What I found was that alongside some of the most serious conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, were plenty of "disorders" describing behaviors that are, at worst, a little strange. Among those are fairly common and harmless sexual predilections like transvestism, S&M, fetishism, and so forth. While it's true that these are not diagnosed as disorders unless they cause some kind of distress, it's worth noting (and controversial) that they have been associated with psychopathology by the medical community at least in part because they are unusual.

Maybe that's the reason why a far more disturbing behavior, the collection of and fixation with instruments of murder, doesn't get its own category: it's far from unusual, especially in the United States. Even as the number of households owning guns has dropped from nearly 50% to just 34%, the number of guns in the U.S. has skyrocketed to a whopping 310 million, thanks in large part to people who turn guns into a lifestyle. A 2004 study from the Injury Prevention Journal found that just 20 percent of gun owners now account for 65 percent of the nation's guns, suggesting that, over time, more Americans have begun to question the ownership of guns, which has had the effect of exposing the remaining fanatics who stockpile them.

People have all sorts of explanations for why they own or collect their guns, particularly hunting and self-protection, but one gets the impression that for some, these are simply convenient, socially-acceptable covers for their more creepy fascination with killing. Leaving hunting aside -- and the disturbing idea that people still take pleasure in the "sport" of shooting defenseless animals -- what do we make, for example, of the millions of assault-type weapons in the U.S.? Like handguns, they are not designed for hunting, and they are a questionable choice for home defense. Their primary function is the efficient murder of human beings. Does a healthy person seek out a weapon like that? Does a healthy society make it available?

Of course it's true that the vast majority of people who buy these or other types of guns don't end up killing people with them. However, take a trip to a civilian shooting range, and you get the sense that some might like to. For instance, very often people are not aiming at a colorful target with a yellow bull's eye, but a human form or a target shaped to emphasize the "kill areas" on a human body. Browse through the ammunition for sale, and you're likely to find an assortment of hollow-point bullets, those designed to do the most amount of damage to flesh and internal organs. Hang around an outdoor venue long enough and you might get to see people unwind by shooting watermelons or other fruits, which of course spray blood-like juice and chunks of material when they're hit. The sense that I get in environments like these (and yes, I've visited more than one) is that although the rhetoric surrounding gun ownership often revolves around hunting or self-protection, many of the men and women who shoot guns for fun fantasize about the chance to kill another person. Maybe it's a "dangerous" criminal -- or an overreaching government agent intent on disarming the population in order to impose what radical radio host Adam Kokesh recently referred to as a form of "slavery."

Without a doubt, we can find murder role-playing in other places as well. Surely the success of first-person shooter games like Halo and Call of Duty suggests that reenacting violence serves some underlying need or desire in many people across the world. But how many people have been killed by a joystick? None that I know of (and in any case, just look at Japan, where video games are even more popular -- its murder rate isn't even comparable to ours.) On the other hand, how many people in the U.S. are murdered with guns? Over 8,000 per year, and not surprisingly, states with higher rates of gun ownership experience higher rates of gun murders.

This is the important difference. Our tolerance of gun fixation -- and the people who suffer from it -- has created an environment in which obviously sick behavior becomes normalized and acceptable. This, in turn, has predictably created a society in which gun violence is pervasive: three people are killed by a gun every hour, and this doesn't include the many other people who are shot and survive. What's more, those of us who have never been hit with a bullet nevertheless live in a constant state of anxiety that we or our children will fall victim to a culture in which transvestism is some kind of disorder but a fixation with instruments of death is normal human behavior.

And so as the debate rages on and Congress continues to do nothing, perhaps we should use this time to reevaluate where people who turn murder weapons into a hobby fit into discussions of mental health. If the NRA wants Americans to focus on the mentally ill, I think we should oblige by expanding our considerations beyond the fringes occupied by the Seung Hui Chos, Jared Loughners, and Adam Lanzas of the world. If we do, perhaps we will determine that some of the people least fit to own guns are, ironically, those who have a bunch of them already.

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