the mentally ill and the madness of guns

With mass shootings the new normal these days — oh, who am I kidding, by now they’re the old normal — I’m starting to run out of things to write, much less say. In November I published a post grappling with the “thoughts and prayers” bromide issued by too many politicians in the wake of such killings, and with the same-old same-old being expressed following the horrors of Sante Fe, I wonder what I or anyone can possibly say that could change anything. But something has to be said. Because something has to change. Because this has got to stop.

So let’s take another tack, here. Let’s talk about mental illness, because even some people who support sane gun legislation and oppose the demoniac manipulations of the N.R.A. fall back on this idea that keeping guns out of hands “the mentally ill” will somehow magically solve this singular American hell of our own creation.

And guess what, everybody. It won’t.

Why? For starters, most mentally ill people aren’t violent. Some are: Between 3 and 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. Flipping that statistic on its head, it means that 95 to 97 percent of such acts are committed by people not defined as mentally ill. Which means, in other words, that most violent people are sane, a point so obvious it rarely gets stated amid all the rampant scapegoating, doublespeak and bass-ackwards emphasis on everything but the guns themselves.

We need gun control not because mentally ill people are prone to violence, but because PEOPLE ARE PRONE TO VIOLENCE. Period.

You want to talk about people with mental illness? Let’s talk about my sister Lucy, the most breathtakingly gentle soul who ever walked the planet. Or my husband Chris, whose only violent act in our 20 years of marriage was that time he knocked a fan to the floor when he woke late to catch a train. Or my father Louis, a pacifist who sparred as a young man but later swore it off, shunning the violence, and thereafter walked out on any film that threw a punch.

I’m more violent than they were. And I’m sane. Supposedly.

Lucy and Chris died by their own hands; my father tried to. In each case, their mental illness manifested itself not in anger at the world or in acts of pathological self-aggrandizement — because, let’s face it, that’s what mass killings are — but the opposite. They weren’t insensitive. They were too sensitive, feeling too much pain with too little hope for assuaging it. Most folks who struggle with psychiatric burdens suffer not from a cold insufficiency of feeling but a glut of the stuff, another obvious point that gets brushed aside in the casual and expedient demonization of the mentally ill.

But I get the logic. I do. As Americans and as human beings, we don’t want to be responsible for these killings. We want some Other to be responsible for the madness. We want Crazy People to be at fault. If, as it comes out, the latest mass murderer exhibited no warning signs, had not been treated for malady X or syndrome Y and wasn’t already diagnosed as mentally ill, the conversation inevitably shifts. The post-slaughter dialogue turns to How He Slipped Through the Cracks,  What Can Be Done To Improve Mental Healthcare and Who Might Have Identified Him as a Crazy Person But Tragically Didn’t.

The idea being: Okay, so maybe the shooter wasn’t labeled mentally ill, except of course he WAS mentally ill, because otherwise there wouldn’t be so many grieving parents and so many impotent politicos tweeting out condolences, right?

Following this logic, the solution is to A) identify all Crazy People everywhere, even the ones who haven’t yet been diagnosed as Crazy; B) make sure none of these Crazy People get access to guns; and C) make sure all Non-Crazy People have full and unfettered access to as many guns as possible. Because guns don’t kill Non-Crazy People. Crazy People do.

What garbage.

First, as I said above, most people with mental illness aren’t bent on killing anyone. Crazy acts are most often committed by Non-Crazy People, which makes the distinction between the two pretty damned worthless, don’t you think?

This also means, and I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, that the line between Crazy and Non-Crazy is much blurrier than you think. It’s a porous border, my friends, and there aren’t any ICE officers waiting to snatch you and send you on home. I say this not as a psychiatrist, which I definitely am not, but as a person who has lived a while and come away with the distinct impression of sanity/insanity as a fluid and relative state much influenced by stressors and circumstances. It isn’t binary; it isn’t off or on, one or the other; instead, it falls on a spectrum. To quote my brother Randy, “Everyone’s a head case. It’s just a matter of degrees.

And so, given the innate Craziness that rests within us all,  it is in our best interests as individuals and as a nation to make guns REALLY, REALLY HARD TO PURCHASE. I know this is a difficult point for some to swallow, but I don’t care. Watching children cry after their classmates die in a bloodbath is even more difficult to swallow, and I’m tired of it. It has to end. Somehow. Someday. Maybe now. What do you say?

8 thoughts on “the mentally ill and the madness of guns

  1. I’m having such a hard time with the logic of this American isolation in terms of gun violence. You are right, we don’t understand “crazy.” We certainly don’t seem to understand the limits of medical and psychiatric intervention as it relates to true mental health issues, let alone sociopathic and other behaviors associated with criminal violence. Most therapists are not capable of dealing with violence of that nature. I am losing hope that we will ever see meaningful change if shooting after shooting we continue to deny the potential for gun control. Laws rarely deter violent behavior, but that’s not was laws are really meant to do. We have laws so we can prosecute crime and mitigate or reduce the situations that lead to those crimes. We need to start caring more about promoting the general welfare.

  2. Terrific piece – an outstanding, courageous assessment of a situation that has so many of us frustrated and at a loss for how to proceed. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Bill – for reading my blog, and for your generous words in response. I just hope we can get a real dialogue going, because something has to change.

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