12/18/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Gun Control Finally on the Agenda? Beware the Agenda

It now appears that Washington will engage in a debate over gun control, and possibly go beyond a feckless "national conversation" and actually do something. Gun control is on the agenda: but beware who is controlling the agenda.

Much of the talk in the first two business days after the Newtown, Conn. shooting involves suggestions to restrict the use of guns by people with mental illness, as reported in Science Times by Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan and a regular Times contributor.

It's hard to argue with that. Guns shouldn't be in the hands of crazy people who are likely to use them to commit murder. But there are two problems with this emerging "national conversation" about guns and mental illness. 

First, as Friedman notes, "there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness." Mental illness is a risk factor for violence, he continues, "but the risk is small." Alcohol and drug abuse are more likely to be triggers of violence than mental illness, he writes, citing a study from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The second problem, as Friedman writes, "is that we are not very good at predicting who is likely to be dangerous in the future."

Still, it would make sense to limit the use of guns by people with mental illness, wouldn't it? It certainly would make sense to many opponents of gun control. Here is where we should beware who's controlling the agenda.

Voting to restrict the purchase or use of guns by people with mental illness would allow political allies of the National Rifle Association to claim that they had taken steps to prevent violence in the schools -- while doing very little to prevent violence or to restrict the purchase or flow of guns. 

I was surprised and pleased to see that Friedman, in a column about mental illness, addresses this political point, too:

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

He's right, of course, and the coverage of any gun-control efforts that emerge from the "national conversation" should be eyed with that in mind. Does a piece of proposed legislation represent real change that can make our children safer? Or is it merely political cover?

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.