Guns & Mental Health
Under a federal law enacted in 1968, an individual is prohibited from buying or possessing firearms for life if he/she has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution.” A person is “adjudicated as a mental defective” if a court—or other entity having legal authority to make adjudications—has made a determination that an individual, as a result of mental illness: 1) Is a danger to himself or to others; 2) Lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs; 3) Is found insane by a court in a criminal case, or incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility pursuant to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A person is “committed to a mental institution” if that person has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution by a court or other lawful authority. This expressly excludes voluntary commitment. It should be noted, however, that federal law now allows states to establish procedures for mentally ill individuals to restore their right to possess and purchase firearms (many states have done so at the behest of the National Rifle Association, with questionable results).
Following a series of mass shootings from 2007-2012 perpetrated by gunmen who suffered from serious mental illness (Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora, among others)—and who in many cases legally purchased the firearms they used to kill with—there has been a great deal of conversation about what more can be done to keep firearms away from such individuals.
It is undoubtedly true that people who are a danger to self and/or others because of mental illness should be prohibited from owning firearms. It is less clear, however, how to tailor new policies to better protect the American public while at the same time avoiding the stigmatization of Americans with mental illness. Any strategy to address the lethal intersection between guns and mental illness should focus of three key facts:
- A large majority of people with mental disorders will never engage in violence against others.
- Most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness.
- Psychiatric disorders such as depression are strongly implicated in suicide, which accounts for more than half of gun fatalities annually.
Unfortunately, very few states have engaged in a serious effort to look beyond the outdated (and somewhat arbitrary) federal standard regarding the purchase of firearms by the mentally ill. More needs to be done, by federal and state lawmakers alike.
Ed Fund Talking Points: Guns, Public Health and Mental Illness
Editorial: Don’t Arm People in a Mental Health Crisis