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Perspective on Guns and Mental Illness

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Updated April 20, 2013

In the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech University in April 2007, when student Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting rampage that left more than 50 people dead or injured, the issue of firearms and mental illness has taken center stage. Our poll on guns and severe mental illness showed most people who voted felt that some stricter form of gun control is needed in the United States, but these were divided over how the issue should be addressed.

Of course, some people are always going to go to extremes and/or slant their opinions to fit their personal agendas.

Sharon, a member of our bipolar disorder community, saw Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association, on the CBS Morning Show, talking about a bill that passed the House on June 13, 2007. This bill requires (and provides funding for) states to send information on criminals and those judged to be mentally ill to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Apparently this measure would have prevented Cho from purchasing the guns he used in the Virginia Tech shooting.

Sharon sent us an email, writing, "In the course of the LaPierre interview, he kept stressing that even the NRA doesn't want everybody to have guns, especially not people who are mentally defective. He said something to the effect that anyone with any history of mental illness or suicidal ideation should not have access to firearms. No word on if that was a plan to block access permanently or just while the person's mental status is in question.

"I don't like guns and I don't plan to own one, but I resent being told I might not be able to - ever - because somebody once upon a time thought I was unstable (I wasn't, but they had the police take me to the ER for a psych eval). It was so humiliating, I still can't talk about it, even though the evaluation revealed that I was perfectly healthy, but somewhat over-extended. What's next, though? Can we be trusted with children? Are we fit to drive? Can we competently vote?

"That being said, I do have a diagnosis of BP, and from what Mr. LaPierre was saying, I am mentally defective. I flinched every time he said it, and he said it with gusto at least ten times in the course of the interview. He never said mentally ill, only mentally defective, mentally defective, mentally defective. And people wonder why so many of us 'mentally defective' people feel we are stigmatized."

Favorite Phrase

Indeed, we found that "mentally defective" seems to be one of LaPierre's favorite phrases. Speaking of the House bill (which was written with much input from the NRA) to Newsweek, he said, "We just don't think it's really gun control to try to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally defective," and used the phrase other times as well.

Sharon continued, "In an ironic twist, a federal panel released a report this week stating that part of what would help prevent tragedies like the VA-Tech horror would be a cultural change toward de-stigmatizing mental illness. Mr. LaPierre may have just set us back a bit right there on national television.

"BP is a spectrum disorder and perhaps there are people with the diagnosis who will never be stable enough to own a gun. Then there are people like me, who have BP but it is so well-managed that if you didn't know - you wouldn't know. I work at a demanding job, I take care of my home, I lead a normal life, I've never been arrested or committed a crime, or had anything close to psychotic mania, nor have I threatened or attempted suicide. So ... am I still 'mentally defective' because I have BP?

"... [The] issue of stigma is very real, especially for anyone who works, needs housing, or wishes to feel more safe and secure by having a gun at home. I am troubled when someone like Mr. LaPierre lumps together any and all persons with a diagnosis and then rabidly promotes that kind of all-encompassing prejudice in front of millions of TV viewers. ...

"I resent being told I am excluded from a constitutional right based on having an illness that does not impair my judgment in a way that would ever put anyone in harm's way. Mr. LaPierre may not be the most eloquent person out there, but he certainly has the ear of millions of Americans who take him seriously. Will he and his organization be among those who get to decide what, exactly, is considered a 'mental defect'? Does having BP in any form or degree really mean I cannot be trusted with a gun?"

Phrase Written in Law!

We were horrified to find that Mr. LaPierre could actually justify his use of the phrase "mentally defective": it is the language used in existing law. For example, in the Federal Firearms Transaction Record (PDF) for over-the-counter purchases of guns, one of the questions is: "Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective (which includes having been adjudicated incompetent to manage your own affairs) or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?" A "yes" answer to this question prohibits the person from purchasing or receiving a firearm.

And since the bill passed by the House is designed to help states comply with those existing laws, it does nothing to de-stigmatize the language. However, it is worth pointing out that since the law uses the word "adjudicate," it appears only a person who has been judged mentally ill in a legal setting would, at this time, be barred from buying a gun. So, Sharon, your being diagnosed with bipolar disorder would not automatically disqualify you.

Whether that will change is an open question. And whether any effort to reduce the stigma of mental illness can succeed when people like Wayne LaPierre continue to hammer negative language into the minds of listeners, only time will tell.

For more on this issue and the House bill, see Taking Aim at Mental Health Records, reprinted from CNN and Newsweek.

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