In the recent CNN Townhall, young high school students conglomerated to question and express their concern to the NRA, United States Government, and others. Once NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch had her chance to speak, the following terms were frequently used: insane, monster, nuts, crazy, and madman. Much like Trump’s announcement on the matter, it has become fashionable as of late to approach gun control issues as mental health issues.
In this article, I will provide criticism of mental health solutions to mass murder with potent firearms. Before I begin, I would like address an obvious problem with the following claim made by Loesch (paraphrased): One of the main problems with National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is that the federal government does not require states to report mental health, criminal, and civil dispute information to the national database.
While she offers this as a criticism of the federal government, and implies they ought to make it illegal not to report information, a law like this is clearly prohibited by the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
“See 28 C.F.R. § 25.4. Case law suggests that a federal statute requiring states to disclose records to the FBI would violate the Tenth Amendment. In Printz v. U.S., 521 U.S. 898 (1997), a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the interim provisions of the Brady Act obligating local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers. The Court held that Congress cannot compel state officials to enact or enforce a federal regulatory program (http://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/background-checks/nics-reporting-procedures/).”
The FBI strongly encourages states to report information adequately. I don’t see any reason states would benefit from failing to report this information. Thus, her point on the matter is not at all cogent, and her proposed solution is largely impossible.
I will dedicate the rest of this article to addressing this current craze associated with reducing problems with gun ownership to problems with mental health.
In the United States legal system, lighter sentences are often given to those who can be deemed to have committed a crime not within their usual state of mind. Two such examples of this are the “crime of passion” defense and the “insanity” defense. Generally, an action based on a snap impulse that has not been premeditated in any way is often considered a crime of passion. The insanity defense generally claims that, due to a mental illness, the defendant does not know the ramifications of their actions or does not know that what they are doing is wrong.
It is reasonably clear that this distinction can be summarized as follows: an action performed in an unusual state of mind for the individual or an unhealthy state of mind is at least somewhat more forgivable than an action performed by a healthy, calm, collected individual that commits a premeditated crime (though it is worth noting that non-whites are not often granted this amount of leniency).
To even begin to understand this distinction, we must immediately admit the following premise: it is not the case that capacity to commit heinous crimes is sufficient for mental illness. In other words, one can be in a healthy, calm, collected state of mind and commit homicide, rape, and other terrible crimes.
It is important that this distinction is acknowledged, as it can be easy to see horrific crimes and discern that a person who could commit such an atrocious act must not be in a healthy mental state. But this kind of behavioristic response denies (or at least claims as unimportant) drastic differences in mental affairs that could lead to the same behavior.
This is echoed by Dr. Michael Stone in his article Mass Murder, Mental Illness, and Men, where he notes that only about twenty-two percent of mass murder crimes include a mentally-ill offender. The criteria Stone claims constitute true mental illness are delusion, schizoaffective psychosis, delusional disorder, severe forms of autistic-spectrum disorders, and psychosis resulting from serious head injury or from abuse of psychotomimetic drugs. And indeed, in the court of law, only about one in every four insanity pleas are successful.
Of course, the conditional “if one is commits mass murder, one is mentally ill” is largely unhelpful for the position of those who would require preventative psychological evaluations for gun ownership. We need to find out the tendency to commit mass murder before it happens.
This leaves other psychological causes for violent behavior. Stone mentions irrational bigotry, narcissistic personality, and other traits which can lead to mass murder. The federal laws for background checks for gun ownership involve checking for past criminal offenses, mental health histories and civil action against the person attempting to obtain a firearm. More information is available here.
This common sense restriction, however, doesn’t do enough. If one expects to use further psychological testing as a method for preventing mass murder, the likes of which the USA has become rather familiar with, one will have to include a wide variety of personality disorders, irrational fears, hatred, moral compass, and many other mental affairs. It seems also apt to include various emotional disorders such as depression anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Beyond this diverse set of mental affairs, true capacity to commit mass murder has as much to do with environment as it does psychological tendency. What is the situation of the would-be gun owner? Are they living in poverty, do they have a family, do they live an unsafe area, have they been physically or psychologically abused, what was their childhood like, and, in the opinion of this author most notably, are they male?
Are these people who are not classifiably mentally ill yet still have the capacity and tendency to commit mass murder still just as responsible for their actions as people of other personality types? Could they successfully plead insanity in the court of law? I don’t think anyone is epistemically justified in answering this question outside of a few select philosophers, and I’m not sure what they would have to say on the matter.
I will get to my point on maleness in a moment. But as noted in Benjamin Mueller’s “Limiting Access to Guns for Mentally Ill is Complicated” article in the NY times, Senior Policy Advisor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness remarks:
“To say no one with mental illness should have a gun — how do you accomplish that? Does that mean anybody that goes to a therapist for depression or anxiety should be reported and put in a database and prohibited from purchasing a firearm? That would impact a fair number of police officers.”
Perhaps military and ex-military personnel would be roped in as well.
The point of all this information is to express the following concern: How on earth are we going to create such a comprehensive psychological evaluation to effectively limit mass murders? After all, the practicalities extend far beyond simply crafting a test. Are the people with these personality types and other mental affairs detectable on such exams as being much different than any other person? Could a sociopath easily answer as they see fit for the society we live in?
I believe these arguments cast doubt on the psychological tests’ ability to prevent the mentally healthy, calm, collected, mass murderer from obtaining a dangerous firearm and following through with premeditated mass murder.
But what if these evaluations were able to test the personality types consistent with ability and tendency to commit violent crimes? As I hinted at earlier, I believe that a very large chunk of males would be barred from obtaining a firearm. Ninety-eight percent of mass murders in the United States are committed by males.
The unstable Y chromosome is increasingly found responsible for violent tendencies, rage, and risky behaviors.
If we are to truly accept the findings of the psychological tests, we must admit that maleness strongly correlated with violence, and indeed, mass murder. Sixty-two percent of gun owners in the United States are male. If we are going to limit mass murders, considerations involving maleness would be an excellent place to start.
One final point: while these psychiatric tests seem hopelessly difficult for potentially useless results, there is another option related to mental health that could feasibly reduce the mass murders in the United States. If we were to raise the overall mental health of the country (including issues with personality and emotional disorders), we should see the numbers of mass shooting decrease. But this would require two things: the destigmatization of mental and emotional illness, and the necessary funding to make sure mental health services are offered cheaply and widespread to anyone who needs them.
I can imagine this conflicting with some political ideals.
Curtis J Howd