People With Mental Illness Should Not Be Denied the Right to Bear Arms

In the wake of the awful shooting in Chattanooga that claimed the lives of five US servicemen, several media outlets are quickly rushing to point to drugs and mental illness are behind the Chattanooga shooting.
07/27/2015 05:47 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016
Broken glass
Broken glass

In the wake of the awful shooting in Chattanooga that claimed the lives of five US servicemen, several media outlets are quickly rushing to point to drugs and mental illness are behind the Chattanooga shooting.

Cable news might lead you to think that someone with a mental illness is likely to be violent. The fact is that people living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence, and they are generally no more likely to be violent than someone in the general population.

There are several salient aspects of Mohammod Abdulazeez. He was male, young, Muslim, had spent time overseas in Muslim countries, and was thought to be suffering from mental illness. The FBI has
ties to ISIS. We are left focusing on his mental health status. This is often looked at first as a reason for why someone goes on a shooting rampage. While this may be a factor, it is important to keep in mind that:
  • Most people living with a mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general population.
  • People living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to be violent themselves
  • People living with mental illness may become violent because of the way they are improperly treated; it may be a reaction. Other times, a medication may be responsible for a difference in rates of violence in people with mental illness.

Too often we hear about a high profile shooting; but it is important to remember that high profile events are high profile precisely because they are unusual and unlikely. However, in recent years, there has been this seeming demonization of people with mental illness. We too often hear "Don't give the mentally ill a gun!" But what does that even mean?

First, we do not say "the blacks; the Muslims; the women; or the diabetics." We should not refer to anyone as "the mentally ill." Second, to vilify and talk about people with mental illness in a way that implies we should be worried about them for our own sake misses the point that we are not thinking of them for their sake. Third, what DSM diagnosis would disqualify someone from a firearm: post-partum depression, ADHD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, etc.? Does it matter if the person successfully manages the disorder? The standard should be if they are going to be a threat to the self or others, not the presence or absence of a mental illness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health website, over a 12-month period of time, more than 25 percent of people may have suffered from a mental illness at one point or another, and 46 percent of people have suffered from a mental illness at least at one point in their life. Whether you like guns or not, do we start to exclude 46 percent of the population from any Constitutional right because that had a mental illness at some point in their life? I say no.

In our society, we don't ask about mental illness, and we don't tell anyone about mental illness for fear of being thought of defective. The next time you hear of someone afflicted with a mental illness, remember to be compassionate and understanding -- they didn't ask to be afflicted with an illness. And their challenges are everyday just like yours or mine, but they also have to have more strength than we do to also overcome an added burden.

Making policy based on high profile events is a surefire way to overreact and make inefficient and, worse, ineffective policy. In short, a high profile event is good time find out where a shortcoming or loophole might reside, but a high profile event is not what policy should be based on. Doing so would result in the majority of cases being marginalized and a strategy designed around an unlikely event.

Paul Heroux is a State Representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. He previously worked for a jail and a prison, and he has a Bachelor's in Psychology from USC, a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.