Federal gun legislation would greatly expand who qualifies as mentally ineligible from owning a gun

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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Recently introduced federal gun legislation would codify and greatly expand the definition of those barred from owning a gun because they suffer from broad, umbrella-like definitions of mental health problems. Mental health advocates, however, say legislators reacting to “deranged” people going on shooting sprees are “completely missing the point.”

Last week, New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy introduced the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011, a nearly-identical resolution to that introduced in the Senate in March by her New York colleague, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. Both bills include a section dedicated to further codifying in federal law what it means to be “adjudicated as a mental defective.” The proposed change would label any person a “mental health defective” who appears to “lack the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs,” or is “compelled” to receive counseling or medication.

Other, seemingly more obvious, definitions of a “mental health defective” include anyone who has been found criminally insane, found incompetent to stand trial or found not guilty by reason of mental deficiencies.

According to the legislation, decisions of whether someone is of subnormal intelligence, competency and/or mental illness are to be decided by a “court, board, commission, or other lawful authority.” No medical qualifications or background in psychological sciences are specified as necessary for such lawful authorities.

Apart from the sexist profiling in also including anyone who appears to be a danger to “himself or others,” the proposed legislation creates more concerns than solutions among both mental health and gun rights advocates.

“[The legislation is] completely missing the point,” said Ron Honberg, general council for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The reality is, making it difficult to get guns is not going to prevent tragedies like Virginia Tech or Tucson. Making the mental health system more responsive to people who have obvious treatment needs is going to prevent these things from happening.”

Making it easier for the federal government to add those with mental illness to a national database like the National Instant Background Check (NIBC) system, said Honberg, not only stigmatizes those suffering from mental illness but could also dissuade fearful individuals from coming forward and receiving the treatment they need. Honberg also said he had questions about the wording of several passages in the bill, which appear to expand the scope of the government’s control of individuals’ rights without any clear restrictions.

“I’m not exactly sure what [compelled] means. Does that imply that the person is not willing to accept services but are compelled to accept services, or does it apply to people who accept services [after they have] been found to need them?”

Honberg continued, saying the definitions of a “commission” and being “committed” aren’t nation-wide standards.

“I mean this is just such a complicated area. State laws vary significantly in terms of the criteria for civil commitment,” said Honberg. “Some limit civil commitment to people who are found to be imminently dangerous to self or others. Others are broader and include what we might call a ‘need for treatment’ standard, so somebody whose in bad shape but not necessarily somebody who is provably dangerous to self or others.”

Nor do the two pieces of legislation mention the durational limit in which someone may be considered a “mental deficient.” Honberg said that existing state laws do contain a procedure for removing one’s name from the list of those adjudicated as a mental health deficient, but “it’s hard.”

“Nobody knows about it and you have to apply to whoever maintains the NIBC system to have your name removed,” said Honberg, who noted that only a handful of states expressly stipulate durational limits.

“Let’s say 30 years ago I was civilly committed to a hospital but for the past 29 years I’ve done really well,” said Honberg. “I’ve been a model citizen, I’ve worked, I’ve been productive, I’ve paid taxes. This would still apply to me.”

Honberg’s objections as a mental health advocate mirror those of Jeffrey Schaler, a frequent antagonist of his. A psychologist and professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, Schaler follows the Thomas Szasz school of psychiatric care in contending that “mental illnesses” have been distorted to be the equivalent of physical illnesses and maladies. Schaler, along with other Szaszian mental health experts, argues against the medicalization of mental troubles that are often subjective and cultural by nature. Schaler points to the fact that authoritarian control from the Soviet Union to the present has increasingly relied on this medicalization of mental health. Its affects, he said, can be seen in this most recent gun legislation as well.

“This is similar in some way to what is happening all over the country in the public schools. Teachers who are upset with certain students quickly diagnose the student as having Attention Deficit Disorder and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and they strongly argue that the child be put on an amphetamine drug like Ritalin or Concerta, or whatever,” he said.

Schaler said that just because someone may be “ordered” to take a drug, it doesn’t mean that the person lacks the sufficient mental capacity of “normal” individuals. Furthermore, Schaler said the most troubling issue of further defining the terms of “mental illness” on a federal level is that diagnosis of those “diseases” is a cultural and political process, not a scientific process. The classification of homosexuality as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 is evidence of the political process prohibiting individuals’ personal rights, said Schaler.

“People who are introducing and arguing for this legislation are essentially acting as if there is a post script at the bottom of the Bill of Rights that reads as follows: ‘For mentally healthy people only,'” said Schaler.

McCarthy’s legislation does not include Schumer’s section on drugs, but both bills attempt to vaguely redefine who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective,” a group already banned from possessing firearms.

While gun control advocates said they wanted to have a “common sense” debate over the access to firearms after the Tucson shooting, gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association and the 2nd Amendment Foundation immediately accused Democratic lawmakers of attempting to cynically exploit the tragedy to further limit the rights of law-abiding citizens.

The fears appeared to be legitimate in at least one instance, as Sen. Schumer’s bill proposes barring anyone arrested, but never convicted, of any drug related crime from owning a gun for five years.

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