Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes was in treatment for schizophrenia when he opened fire and killed 12 people. Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza “struggled with basic emotions,” and as a child wrote a disturbing short story about a grandma who wanted to taxidermy a little boy to place on her mantel. He later killed 28 people. So it doesn’t seem like a stretch to claim that many of America’s most notorious mass shooters suffer from severe mental illness — and that perhaps with a little more oversight we could have stopped them from accessing weapons.
California legislators apparently agree. Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1968 into law on Friday — gun control legislation that would ban any Californian twice-hospitalized in a given year for mental illness, in suspicion of harm to them self or others, from buying a gun for the rest of his life. Conservatives and libertarians should take note, since this might be a new piecemeal strategy in play, increasingly used by liberals to restrict gun rights under the guise of safety and surface-level logic.
The bill was introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low, who said, “People at risk of harming themselves or others should not have easy access to firearms,” and that, “Research shows that suicide with a firearm is the most common and by far the most lethal suicide method.”
Low’s concern about suicide is fair and shared by many, but the ban he’s instituted will inadvertently and fallaciously link mentally ill people with mass shooters — groups many in the general public already conflate. According to Pew, 89 percent of Americans agree that people with mental illnesses shouldn’t be allowed to purchase firearms.
Unfortunately, gun bans like California’s will strip away the rights of millions of Americans, while doing very little to make us safer. California’s new legislation should not be heralded as an example of forward-thinking, common sense policy. It’s anything but.
Although the bill will only ban those who have been hospitalized for mental illness, that’s still an unreasonable standard. Common antidepressants, like Prozac or Cymbalta, can cause or exacerbate suicidal thoughts that might require someone to be hospitalized, even though the danger they pose is only temporary, and usually is not directed toward others. Californians who then seek hospitalization should not be stripped of their Second Amendment rights for life just because they’ve taken necessary precautions to keep themselves safe as their minds are addled with unpredictable side effects and macabre thoughts. Besides, being hospitalized for a mental health issue isn’t necessarily linked to violence — to conflate the two is foolish.
In fact, consider that one in six people nationwide takes some form of psychiatric drug — that’s roughly 15 percent of Americans who could be deprived of their Second Amendment rights, depending on how loosely we define “mental illness” in future iterations of gun bans, especially if one were pursued on a federal level. Who’s to say such a policy will remain narrow in scope and sparingly enforced?
Still, established California law already bars hospitalized mentally ill people from purchasing a gun for five years post-admittance. Surely the current law is sufficiently cautious that there’s no need to limit self-defense for life. And for devout firearm enthusiasts, such as sports hunters, could California’s new stringent policy be a deterrent from seeking mental health help? It’s worth considering that regulations like these might disincentivize some people from pursuing treatment for very real psychological conditions which should not go unaddressed.
The notion that mental health status alone is enough to justify the restriction of gun rights is especially appalling because most people with mental illnesses aren’t actually dangerous — they’re just an easy presumed culprit to fixate on.
Less than five percent of crimes in the U.S. involve people with mental illnesses, and they’re actually less likely than those not diagnosed with mental illness to commit a gun-related offense. So although this form of gun regulation does sound good on the surface, it will only rob already-disadvantaged people of their constitutional rights to very little effect.
Even the liberal American Civil Liberties Union often opposes gun control measures that restrict which type of person purchases firearms. Generally speaking, they deem “laws that regulate or restrict particular types of guns or ammunition, regardless of the purchaser” as permissible, raising few legal red flags, but regulations which “restrict categories of purchasers” like immigrants or people with mental illness are suspect, because they’re based on flimsy evidence, and raise both due process and equal protection concerns.
This makes sense: Imagine putting people suspected of erratic behavior, due to mental illness, on no-buy lists, similar to no-fly lists. Far too many innocent people could be swept up in such a witch hunt, and it’s inevitable that some of these choices would be made based on stereotypes and faulty analysis, as with no-fly lists. Not every mental illness is the same, and not every person who suffers is likely to be violent (in fact, quite few are). Standards like the one proposed in AB 1968 are too broad, with potential to do harm to large swaths of the population.
Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, wrote in the wake of the Parkland shooting: “This moment calls on us to act not only to ensure that massacres like Parkland do not recur but to end the everyday gun violence that takes exponentially more lives from our communities. It also demands that we do so in a manner consistent with our most cherished civil liberties and constitutional rights.”
Permanently stripping Californians of their Second Amendment rights for seeking mental health support isn’t consistent with the ostensibly progressive value of protecting civil liberties for the vulnerable. AB 1968, like so much liberal-backed legislation, started with good intentions, but will create harmful outcomes that woefully undermine basic constitutional principles. We must do better to protect all people from gun violence, but we shouldn’t do so by subjugating people who are mentally ill.