3/03 New Boogeyman In The Gun Debate

The New Boogeyman In The Gun Debate
Larry Pratt

Think back a few years ago. Bill Clinton was president. Gun control was one of his top agenda items. And the perceived terror threat was supposedly from home-grown militia types.

We were told they were behind bombings like the one in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Americans were led to believe there was a militia guy lurking behind every tree and under every bed.

All the while, the real Al Qaeda terrorists were virtually ignored by most media and government officials.

As the years progressed, however, many started wondering if there had been a rush to judgment. Even the liberal New Yorker magazine was forced to admit that “the American militia movement, it seems, is owed an apology.” Indeed, the magazine confessed the militia movement was the “conspiracy that wasn’t.”

When that took some of the wind of the “gun control sails,” advocates began looking for a new boogeyman — an excuse on which to base a whole new set of gun restrictions.

Well, now it seems that they have found that boogeyman: the mentally ill, a term which gun control extremists can expand to cover almost every American citizen.

New Hampshire state senator Sylvia Larsen is typical of the new generation of gun grabbers. Senator Larsen says that: “Common sense, as well as federal law, states that mentally ill persons need help, not firearms.” To this end, she has introduced legislation to prohibit such folks from legally owning a firearm.

But when Larsen talks about the “mentally ill,” one wonders who exactly she has in mind. Surgeon General David Satcher shocked the nation in 1999 when he announced that 20 percent of the population — one in five Americans — is mentally ill and in need of treatment.

Such a preposterous claim gives one pause to consider just how these folks are defining mental illness. Some “authorities” seem to have quite an elastic definition.

After studying this very issue, Richard Poe, who is an author and magazine editor, was driven to ask if the term “mental illness” would prevent everyone on Prozac from owning a gun? Or diabetics, who are prone to mood-altering insulin reactions? Or women with PMS?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV) even lists smoking and coffee drinking as mental illnesses!

With this kind of an elastic definition for mental illness, we’re forced to recall the abuses of the former Soviet Union where political opponents were designated mentally ill and incarcerated.

Will gun control advocates restrain themselves and limit their gun bans to only those who have been institutionalized?

Even assuming that all those with mental health histories are “bad” guys, Larsen’s bill is NOT about keeping bad guys from getting guns. Bad guys will ALWAYS be able to get guns, no matter how many restrictions there are.

Just look at Great Britain, which has seen its crime rate soar after imposing a draconian gun ban in 1997. According to a recent UN study, England’s crime rate is now higher than the other top 16 developed nations and proves that gun bans don’t stop bad guys from getting guns.

But one still runs into the unanswered question: are officials going to define “mental illness” to cover the real crazies, or are they going to use it as an elastic term to cover millions of law-abiding Americans? It is worth noting many of those under institutional care have only minor and treatable illnesses.

Even if the definition is strictly applied, there are three million Americans who have spent time in mental health facilities. This group has no more involvement in violent crime than does the rest of the population.

And predicting which ones in this group are going to commit future crimes is not an exact science. Doctors John Monahan and Henry Steadman addressed the issue of linking mental health histories and firearms ownership in their essay Toward a Rejuvenation of Risk Assessment Research. They drew attention to several studies of violent offenders with mental illness diagnoses.

Now, please note that this study looked at people who were both mentally ill and were ALREADY violent offenders. Thus, one would think that these patients would have been more likely to commit future crimes. Still, the study concluded that psychiatrists and psychologists are accurate in “no more than one out of three predictions of violent behavior” when studying institutionalized populations.

In other words, the doctors would have been more accurate in predicting who would be violent if they flipped a coin.

Senator Larsen has embarked upon a dangerous course. Her position could lead to banning all citizens from gun ownership.

What needs to be banned is Senator Larsen’s bill.