New NRA-endorsed legislation that would restrict many individuals with mental health problems from buying firearms is a misguided effort that stigmatizes people with mental health issues, resists meaningful reform, and provides a false sense of security.
The bill would reinforce the National Instant Criminal Background Check system to require more mental incompetency adjudications. Rather than focus on a universal background check law that could mend these same flaws, the approach singles out the mentally ill.
“I have worked side by side with both the NRA and the mental health community to ensure that this bill will help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people without stigmatizing the mentally ill or taking away individual rights,” said sponsor Sen. Mark Begich (D-A.K.) in a joint press release issued with co-sponsors Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
While it makes sense to keep guns out of the wrong hands, blaming mental illness for violence—and implying that any undiagnosed person could commit a mass shooting—is misguided. Bills like this one avoid confronting the humanity of killers, and reinforce the narrative that mass shootings are acts of evil individuals instead of a violent culture writ large.
“Although people with serious mental illness have committed a large percentage of high-profile crimes, the mentally ill represent a very small percentage of the perpetrators of violent crime overall,” wrote Margot Sanger-Katz for the National Journal earlier this year. According to Sangor-Katz, 96 percent of violent crimes are committed by people who are not mentally ill.
At the same time, suicides outpace homicides in the United States by a wide margin—and are the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes that more than 38,000 people die by suicide every year in the United States, and a large portion of those are committed with a firearm.
For every college student that does take their own life, many more struggle with depression. In 2009, the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment found that nearly 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function".
The message this bill sends is that people with mental illnesses are unstable, unhinged and unsafe. At a time when we are finally making strides toward reducing stigma and getting young people to seek help when they need it, that is a message we cannot afford.