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Mental illness and guns: It’s impossible to legislate

Here is a contrarian’s perspective. Restricting gun sales to the mentally ill will lead to an increase in gun violence. My reasoning is based on several concerns.

Defining mental illness itself is not totally objective. The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the “DSM,” lists behaviors by symptoms that are given a name. It is ever-changing as new illnesses replace old ones, e.g., homosexuality was once considered a mental illness but now it is not.

When one considers the hundreds of mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia, psychoses, borderline personalities, depression, dozens of phobias, manic states, bipolar disorder, substance abuses, autism spectrum disorders, antisocial disorders, and my favorite, narcissistic personality disorder, it is clear that a majority of the American population will experience an episode of mental illness in their lifetimes. A quarter of the population will experience clinical depression. When you add newly listed disorders, hoarding and temper, we are almost all covered.

It would be impossible to have a Second Amendment with expanding definitions of mental illness. Would you forbid people with eating disorders, overweight (extreme obesity) and underweight (anorexia), from owning guns?

Psychologists and psychiatrists define mental illness. You would not want the government to do that because, historically, those who oppose a government can be classified as mentally ill and be committed. In the last years of the Soviet Union, dissidents were diagnosed as anti-social and committed to mental hospitals.

Another problem is the history of a person’s mental illness. Would one episode of mental illness lead to a person losing forever his right to bear arms? What would be the look back time? A returning soldier experiences post-traumatic social disorder in the year he returns from war. Does he lose the right of gun ownership years later?

The third problem is that it would stigmatize the mentally ill instead of encouraging people to get help. I have known people who needed therapy and refused to get it. People would not want to be in the same category as felons, denied Second Amendment rights.

Logically, those receiving adequate professional help would not be the ones committing gun violence. A national background check of people who have received help for mental illness would not be as effective as a national list of those who never received adequate treatment. It is the latter group that will commit violence more often.

What would happen if a household member were identified as mentally ill? Should the remaining members of the household be forbidden to own guns in case they are stolen?

There is another issue to ponder. Are people who commit gun violence mentally ill to begin with? We make judgments such as “disturbed,” “nutcases,” “whack-jobs,” to describe behaviors we find aberrant. These are value judgments. Mislabeling behaviors will draw us away from finding causes of violence.

Were the 19 hijackers on 9/11, which murdered thousands, mentally ill? No evidence of mental illness was found in The 9/11 Commission Report or in Lawrence Wright’s exhaustive study, “The Looming Tower-Al Qaida and the Road to 9/11.” The hijackers were alienated young men but not mentally ill.

Mass shooters in America either surrender to police or commit suicide. That means they know what they did was wrong. Is killing 27 people in Newton, Conn., a sign of mental illness but murdering 2,000 in New York not? Does the number of people you slay define mental illness?

The mid 20th century psychogist, Roger Lindner, in his book, “The Fifty Minute Hour,” wrote that alienated people who join extremist groups cease to be mentally ill because all their neuroses end when they have a cause to believe in.

Unless the hard drive on Adam Lanza’s computer can be rebuilt, we will never have a clue to his motive for slaughtering his mother, children, and educators. He was only diagnosed with a mild form of autism in school. Is it frightening to believe that he was evil and not mentally ill?

Bernard Madoff swindled people of $17.5 billion and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. He may have been a sociopath in that he had no feeling for his victims, but his judge called him “extraordinarily evil.” R. Allen Stanford received 110 years for a Ponzi scheme of over a billion dollars, and Russell Wasendorf Sr. received 50 years for a $215 million scheme. These men are in prison to protect society. However, if they are sociopaths, a form of mental illness, how can you then hold someone responsible for his illness?

Dr. Fritz Redlich, former Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University and Dean of their School of Medicine, who reviewed all of Adolph Hitler’s medical records found that Hitler did not fit into any of the DSM’s categories of mental illness. He believed that Hitler was evil. Recently released Russian records of the interrogations of the two men who were closest to Hitler on a daily basis, his SS adjutants, described a sane man suffering from exhaustion. A close reading of the minutes of Hitler’s military conferences indicate a sane man.

The demonic image of Hitler from films is not true, and the American psychologist, Walter Langer, who concluded during the war that Hitler was mentally ill, based his speculations upon unreliable sources.

Ninety percent of all homicides are committed by the non-mentally ill, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. We should accept that evil and criminality exist without mental illness.

Rick Sirvint is a Rindge resident.

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