When the GOP-controlled House voted last Thursday to overturn an Obama-era regulation that prevented some mentally ill people from purchasing firearms, anti-gun Democrats howled. They mocked the Republican Party for being such lapdogs to the National Rifle Association (NRA) that they would do something as plainly stupid as giving guns to people who are unstable and unpredictable.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but in this particular controversy allowing mentally ill people to purchase guns is the side that saves lives.
The policy under review only applies to a small subset of potential gun owners – about 75,000 people receiving Social Security for mental disability who get help in managing their affairs. Obama’s regulation directed their names to the FBI’s criminal background check database.
But Social Security claims are routinely denied for people who don’t see doctors and don’t take their medications. So the Obama rule only applies to people receiving mental health care. If it remains in force, people who like guns will avoid treatment, and once armed they’ll be more dangerous, especially to themselves. If the Republican bill passes, many of those same people will feel comfortable seeking government aid and therefore treatment – so even if they purchase guns they’ll be less likely to use them recklessly.
For people who suspect they have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, and other mental illnesses, the decision to visit a mental health care professional is rarely easy. Nobody wants the stigma of mental illness. People with mania want to prolong their feelings of euphoria, and those grappling with paranoia don’t trust anyone. People fear losing their jobs, their family, or even their freedom through involuntary hospitalization. Government restrictions, especially those related to things they cherish, become excuses to push off treatment.
The mentally ill people receiving care who are on Social Security are doing what’s best for themselves and society, yet they’re the ones the Obama rule targets. By contrast, mentally ill people who don’t get treatment are at serious risk of committing acts of violence – usually against themselves. Most deaths from gun violence are suicides, and experts say nine out of ten suicides are by people with mental illnesses, usually depression. Most of those suicides are by people whose mental illnesses are untreated.
If we care about our mentally ill neighbors and family members, we should reject policies that make it less likely they’ll have access to doctors and medications. For people who would have guns in either case, what’s really “insane” is a policy that facilitates their being both armed and untreated.
But what about all the incidents of mass shootings? Do we really want to create more Newtowns, San Bernadinos, and Charlestons? Well, mass shootings are rare. Even the liberal Mother Jones counts only a handful of incidents a year, many connected with ideology rather than illness. And many of those were committed by people not being treated.
Most violence is not committed by mentally ill people, and most mentally ill people are not violent. A National Institute of Mental Health report found that if no Americans suffered from mental illness, we’d still have 96 percent of the level of violence we have now.
It’s true that certain gun restrictions (permits, licensing requirements, and waiting periods) have been found to reduce suicide rates. But the Obama regulation is different. It restricts handguns only for people who treat their mental illnesses, which is the less risky group – while deterring people who desperately need treatment from seeking help.
Look, guns are not my issue. Not a single one of the nearly 200 columns I have written in the last decade concerns gun rights or gun control (until this one). I am certainly not a member of the NRA, and in the name of public safety I support reasonable restrictions on the right to bear arms.
But this is not a reasonable restriction.
Gun-control advocates sometimes complain that NRA members oppose any gun control measure, no matter how sensible. Well, what if a gun-rights measure is sensible? By supporting repeal of this regulation, anti-gun people can demonstrate they’re not ideologues. As long as it remains fairly easy for Americans to find and own guns, we don’t need rules that make people who are going to buy them anyway more likely to harm themselves or others.
As the bill goes to the Senate, Americans should hope our representatives choose the public policy that respects people with mental illnesses and encourages smart health-care decisions, rather than relying on stereotypes and scapegoating and thus worsening the suffering of Americans already in great distress.
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.