A lot has been said these past few days in reaction to the Sandy Hook school shooting. For the most part, I have kept my mouth shut and tried to simply take in what everyone else has to say. I am not expressly qualified to comment on this type of tragedy or the broader political and cultural implications at play. But after several days of reading every article I can get my hands on and listening to passionately (if not always articulately) expressed opinions from both ends of the political spectrum, there is one thing I feel I must say: do not make this a conversation about mental illness in America. Don’t get me wrong, that is a conversation we must have. It’s a conversation that we should have been having for years now. A conversation that we should have every year, every day, really. Discussion of mental health and the treatment of our mentally ill should occur the way discussions of general health occur: openly and often and encompassing all manner of past and current concerns, treatment recommendations and implications for both national and global public health. We should be talking about mental illness in this country, regularly, perpetually. And as part of that broader conversation, we should discuss the point where mental illness and gun control intersect. But we cannot turn Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Virginia Tech or any of the other many, many mass shootings into conversations about mental illness alone.
The mentally ill are not your boogeymen. You cannot just suddenly care about mental health every time there is a discussion about limiting access to deadly firearms. The number of Americans who suffer from mental illness is fairly staggering, but the majority of them, the vast majority of us, will not commit an act of violence during our lifetimes. The vast majority of mental health sufferers do not harbor violent thoughts. We do not have blood lust. We don’t spend time pondering what it might feel like to shoot another living being. As a group, the mentally ill are not inherently more dangerous than any other group. Certainly not moreso than a group that regularly shouts at the top of their lungs about their right to own objects that can quickly and efficiently kill other people.
So please, let us not wrap ourselves in the comforting notion that crazy people exist and if we simply focus on controlling them, tragedies like this will become sad distant memories instead of regular occurrences. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to have a serious and purposeful discussion about mental health and illness in this nation. I would love that. But you don’t get to use that conversation as way to deflect from the equally important discussion about gun control. Mental health and illness are complex systems. There is no easy measure for predicting violence. There is no surefire sign or signal that we can point to as an individual’s tipping point for violent behavior. “Better care for our mentally ill” is not some simple, quick fix solution that gun enthusiasts are making it out to be. You know what would be easier? Outlawing access to semiautomatic weapons and significantly limiting overall access to guns. Let’s have that discussion. Let’s talk seriously about gun control.
You don’t get to turn mental illness into the bad guy. Not when everyone knows that every bad guy needs a weapon. Yes, people kill people. And guns allow them to do it more quickly and in far greater numbers. So let’s have that conversation. I’m all ears.