11/21/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Why We Don't Need a 'National Database of the Mentally Ill' to Control Guns

In the days following the Sandy Hook shooting, NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre blurted out several ideas for what could prevent such tragedies in the future. He famously advocated for mandatory armed guards in public schools, blamed the media, and blamed video games. He also had this to say:

"How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark? A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?"

When even the organization that's known for resisting almost any form of gun control is calling to take guns away from mentally ill people, it might seem like a no-brainer. Keeping guns out of the hands of potentially unstable people just seems, well, logical. But what if there's a serious flaw in that logic?

A recent Mayo Clinic study points out that mass shooters tend to meticulously plan their crimes weeks or months in advance, undermining the idea that the mentally ill simply "snap" and go on shooting rampages, while also complicating the notion of effective gun control through gun registries, since a methodical planner has plenty of time to obtain weapons through illegal channels.

A more basic problem with a strategy that targets mentally ill people is that the vast majority of them are not violent. When you control for substance abuse, a factor that exacerbates violence in all populations, only about 4.3 percent of people with a "severe" mental illness are likely to commit any sort of violence, according to a University of Chicago study. The violence rate among those with a "non-severe" mental illness is about equal to that of the "normal" population.

"In the absence of a history of violence or any of the other risk factors, it is impossible to predict who will become violent," says Stephen K. Hoge, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University. "If we put doctors in the position of acting on behalf of the government or acting on behalf of social control, then that undermines the therapeutic mission."

In other words, by targeting and stigmatizing the mentally ill, especially in the absence of a coherent risk-identification strategy, the effect may be to discourage people who need help from seeking it, while also stripping away the rights of a huge group of people who will likely never commit a violent act.

"To the extent that society continues to vilify the mentally ill and scapegoat them as the primary cause of gun violence, is a major step backward," Hoge says.

For an example of what can happen when the government unfairly targets an entire group of nonviolent people, watch the Reason TV video below, which features the case of a California woman suffering from anxiety who was hospitalized while she adjusted to a new medication. After returning home, her house was raided by state agents who confiscated all of her husband's firearms while the neighbors looked on in shock.