Should those with mental illness possess firearms?

Liz Spikol (The Trouble With Spikol) wrote about whether those struggling with mental illness should have the ability to buy and possess guns in her weekly column for the Philadelphia Weekly. I can certainly identify with some of her feelings:

I don’t always want to die. Just … usually. It’s hard to wake up every morning and consider the facts—I’m going to have to hang in there for another day, get through the working and the sleeping until the next day comes with the same question: Can I make it through today?

I did it yesterday, but what about tomorrow?

I drive past a bridge, and think about jumping. I see a sale on razor blades, and I think of slitting my wrists. I wait for the trolley, and think of throwing myself in front of it. It’s a macabre parlor game I play without being entirely aware of it. Like absently counting yellow cars as you go down the highway.

My obsession with suicide—and my daily struggle not to give in—isn’t, I’d venture, so unusual for people with serious mental illness. So much of the time we’re locked in battle.

Tell me about it, sistah. She goes on:

Now, a question: Do you want a person like me to own a gun? I could walk into a gun store today, put on a smile, chat with the clerk and go over with him which firearm would be best for a single woman who wants home protection.

I could get a gun more easily than I could adopt a dog from most animal shelters.

So could a lot of people like me—sad, angry, desperate, but smiling and going out to dinner and seeing a movie and talking to friends. Hiding is the most natural thing in the world to us. We’re all covert operators of a kind.

When Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, it got several debates going at once, many of them to do with gun ownership and mental illness. What are the privacy rights of students with mental troubles? Does the right to bear arms apply equally to those who are delusional and suicidal?

Despite my normal facade, which I master, there is no way in hell I should own a gun. A couple days after the massacre, I wrote as much on my blog, expecting to be pilloried.

Whether we’re talking about depression that leads to suicide or the kind of mental troubles that engender mass slaughter, the fundamental problem is the same: We don’t effectively keep guns out of the hands of people who—through no fault of their own and for organic reasons they have no control over—should not be allowed to own them.

Liz, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I know there’s debate among the mentally ill about whether they should be able to purchase firearms because they have the "right" to.

The right to bear arms should have a restiction akin to that on free speech:

"The government can regulate speech that is intended and likely to incite "imminent lawless action," or where the speech presents a "clear and present danger" to the security of the nation."

Those who are severely mentally ill should NOT be allowed to possess firearms. I’m on the border of sounding TAC-ish here, but those with severe mental illness represent a sort of "clear and present danger" to others and themselves.

Determining who is or isn’t severely mentally ill is a tough call. I’ll even play Devil’s Advocate on myself and refer to my last post on "supposedly shooting the messenger" in which I said that 50 percent of participants in a study admitted to having a lifetime psychiatric disorder. I’m basically saying that’s 150 million people who can’t own firearms. Even I think that’s a bit too much.

So how is it possible to regulate this problem? In all honesty, I do not have the answers. Background checks are supposed to be performed before a purchase goes through. (I think the waiting time varies from state to state. If I gauge myself correctly, New York state has a 7-day waiting period.) Background checks do not include a mental history. Congressmen around the country have begun introducing bills that require states to identify people who were ordered by a court to be committed to a hospital for inpatient care. This means if a person voluntarily checks himself into a hospital or receives outpatient care (including psychiatrist/therapist sessions), this information would not be required. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine went a step further in his bill, however, saying that he wanted to include people who receive outpatient care. That’s a little – no pun intended – insane to me. Either way, Cho wouldn’t have – another pun here – completely fit the bill. Although a judge ordered that he receive outpatient treatment, he was never committed. As a result, "his name was never entered into the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System and he was later allowed to by a gun." I’m curious about the number of guns Cho purchased. It sounded like a possessed a few handguns at the time of the shooting.

Interestingly enough, National Rifle Association (NRA) Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre  supports preventing access to guns for those who have been committed to a hospital via court order. The vice president of the American Psychiatric Association and the president of Mental Health America (MHA) have spoken out against releasing medical records.

"David Shern, president of the [MHA], denounced the measure as ‘an extremely ill-informed regressive social policy that further stigmatizes people and will do nothing to reduce gun violence.’

The critics say the ban discriminates against people with mental illness, based on the erroneous assumption that they are more violent than other people."

[Aside: Enter TAC]

Should we [as mentally ill patients] give up our HIPAA rights and allow stores that sell weapons to peek into our medical history to detemine whether we’re fit to own a gun? I don’t think our entire medical history should be divulged. (Not unless you want to, which for some reason, you actually can.) National mental health organizations are against any policies that would require state or federal access to confidential medical information.  The argument is it would deter people from seeking treatment. (I’m not normally thinking that I shouldn’t get treatment for my depression because the government won’t allow me to buy a gun, but that’s just me.) Perhaps at least three witnesses should be involved (like applying for a financial loan) in the purchase who can verify that the buyer is mentally fit to purchase a weapon. This isn’t foolproof solution, but it might help.

If I had access to a gun, I’d have been dead a long time ago. Actually, my father-in-law, who used to to be an avid hunter, possesses guns in his home. I don’t know where they are, but even if I did, the key to the cabinet is located somewhere else. I get pretty suicidal, but I probably would get tired and give up after hours of searching for the key and the cabinet. I could go to a Super Wal-Mart and maybe get my hands on one, but, uh, I won’t go that route.

I’ve been hospitalized twice for suicide attempts. The first for overdosing on over-the-counter medications and the second for several attempts (attempting to hang myself, drink household cleaners, etc.). The outcome to resolve both incidents were not very fun. (Try drinking even a Dixie cup full of charcoal and see how you can swallow it.)

I can go to a store to purchase firearms and likely pass a background check with flying colors. Since I’ve voluntarily committed myself to a hospital. I’ve never been "court-ordered" to do so. Given my mental history, this is a problem. I’m sure there are many other people out there who are worse off than I am and can still obtain guns.

The law has to include information to alert a firearms seller as to who can and can’t use a gun responsibly. The inability to do so could affect (and will) affect the lives of countless others. The route to doing that, however, is not easy or as simple as we’d like to think.

And remember, even if the bills mentioned above had already been law, they would have never stopped the VTech shootings. Cho would have passed with flying colors.

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7 Comments

  1. Stephany said,

    May 9, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks for linking up Spikol’s account of this and sharing your own.
    Over the last weeks since the Cho shootings–I have also been thinking much about guns/mental illness and suicide.
    My first point is that I am afraid of guns. Never owned one, fired one, touched one.
    I believe in Civil Liberties for all, and do not believe in discrimination against mentally ill people owning firearms.
    BUT– I started thinking about how the stats are so high w/men and suicide, and how guns are mostly[just my observation and can’t quote any stats]used by men, to kill selves or others. I started wondering in fact, who actually are gun owners in number–men or women. Taking my thought back to why men have higher suicide rates, well if they own guns–it’s an easy choice to use, where for instance, I don’t own a gun so that ability to die by suicide is not there, unless I own a gun.
    I started seriously thinking about suicide and how people live or die. I came to the conclusion, that guns are a sure thing. A gun to the head does the job, and there is no “accidental” surviving, as a wanna be attempter–such as OD’ing or jumping off of a building, etc–we all hold that chance of living to tell the story—and face it stats prove that people die everyday because they found a sure way to end their life.
    This became a provocative thought that I had–and came to the conclusion, that I do not ever want to own a gun. I don’t want to know I have a possible sure way to exit. I want to live, yet with mental illness, as Liz and you state, comes with it’s own way of using our minds to harbor these dark thoughts, and the day I have one of those thoughts, I don’t want a sure thing–in the form of a gun any where near me.
    THUS my next provocative thought–I seriously gave consideration to finding a legal professional to remove my status, and civil liberty–and right–to own a gun.
    Not for the protection of others–for protection of my own self. A safety net of making sure, I could never walk into a gun store with a smile–and buy a gun “for protection”–and then go shoot myself.
    This is a brilliant combination of thought from Spikol and yourself. I appreciate a place to write what I’ve been thinking for a few weeks now.

  2. Jude said,

    May 9, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    When I was discussing guns with my former therapist because I was thinking of getting one, he told me about a client he had who *hadn’t* died from the gunshot, but had screwed up his face instead. It’s possible that, except for unpleasant poisons such as cyanide, there is no sure thing. Since I don’t know how to use a gun either, I figured I’d probably screw that one up. You probably have to learn how to use one before you reach the point of being so suicidal that you lack the volition to learn how to use one.
    When I hear that someone who expressed suicidal thoughts owned a gun and used it to kill himself, I wonder what was wrong with the people around him who didn’t take the gun away. Yet, I derived comfort at my most suicidal phase in having a stash of medication that I could use. The battle to stay alive when you’re like that hardly seems worth it, yet here I am today, only moderately depressed and not suicidal at all–just waiting for something like cancer to get me so I can get it over with.

  3. Jude said,

    May 9, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    When I was discussing guns with my former therapist because I was thinking of getting one, he told me about a client he had who *hadn’t* died from the gunshot, but had screwed up his face instead. It’s possible that, except for unpleasant poisons such as cyanide, there is no sure thing. Since I don’t know how to use a gun either, I figured I’d probably screw that one up. You probably have to learn how to use one before you reach the point of being so suicidal that you lack the volition to learn how to use one.
    When I hear that someone who expressed suicidal thoughts owned a gun and used it to kill himself, I wonder what was wrong with the people around him who didn’t take the gun away. Yet, I derived comfort at my most suicidal phase in having a stash of medication that I could use. The battle to stay alive when you’re like that hardly seems worth it, yet here I am today, only moderately depressed and not suicidal at all–just waiting for something like cancer to get me so I can get it over with.

  4. May 9, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Stephany,
    BUT– I started thinking about how the stats are so high w/men and suicide, and how guns are mostly[just my observation and can’t quote any stats]used by men, to kill selves or others. I started wondering in fact, who actually are gun owners in number–men or women. Taking my thought back to why men have higher suicide rates, well if they own guns–it’s an easy choice to use, where for instance, I don’t own a gun so that ability to die by suicide is not there, unless I own a gun.
    “Of the 24,672 suicide deaths reported among men in 2001, 60% involved the use of a firearm.” – National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
    This is a brilliant combination of thought from Spikol and yourself. I appreciate a place to write what I’ve been thinking for a few weeks now.
    I’m glad I could spark a bit of conversation about it. Just food for thought.

  5. d said,

    May 12, 2007 at 11:50 am

    I think giving up the right to medical record privacy (a sacred thing IMO) is a dangerous thing. “For the good of the of the people” always starts out with things that seem well intentioned; and thus begins a slippery slope of what next?

    As for the suicide question, I respectfully disagree. There are many firearms in my home.(unloaded, locked, and locked in a cabinet) The more convenient & impulsive options are the many lethal doses of psych meds in the cupboard; but I would never do that to a loved one, so the suicide question with me, at least is really not an issue.

  6. Alison said,

    May 12, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Governor Kaine did not add people who voluntarily seek outpatient treatment to the database, only people who are court ordered into outpatient treatment after a commitment hearing.
    As to guns being a sure thing, um no, they are not. I have met 3 people who survived gun shots to the head, one with an exploding bullet in the mouth. Medications are not a sure thing either, even if someeone thinks they have figured it all out, they may just end up really sick and really damaged.
    If you don’t want to own a gun, don’t buy one. I don’t want one myself, but I don’t think that everyone who ever sought treatment should be barred for life from owning one. Many people recover.
    The database as it stands now in Virginia (and elsewhere I believe), does not let the gun shop owner know why a person is in the database, just that they are, so MH history is not revealed. But just remember that Virginia is the state that has the most citizens in the federal database due to mental illness and still this is the state where this happened. There is no protection from the inexplicable and unpredictable tragedy, and really, the most likely person to go on a rampage killing is a middle aged white guy who just lost his job, so are we going to put all of them in a database when they get their first unemployment check?

  7. June 3, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Taking rights away from the mentally ill is a slippery slope. For example, I have been diagnosed as having “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” due to my disinterest in school work. For 8 years I have been (and remain) on ever-higher doses of amphetamine (Adderall), and a few months ago was diagnosed with “Bipolar disorder.” Strangly, the diagnosis criteria that was used bares a strong resemblance to amphetamine addiction. Should I be barred from having guns for life? Moreover, should the government (the very same that has liberated thousands of Iraqis by killing them) be the ones with the power to decide this? If gun rights are reduced to government given privileges, why not free speech too?


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