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There’s No Magic Bullet

Recent studies by The New York Times and the Mayo Clinic show how problematic restricting gun rights to the mentally ill can be.
(Photo: Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock)

The question about how to, or whether to, regulate the access of people with mental illness to guns has always been a heated debate—and several high-profile events over the past year have added a considerable amount of fuel to the fire. A New York Times piece on Sunday by Michael Luo and Mike McIntire revealed just how confusing and contradictory state laws governing gun-confiscation by law enforcement are.

Federal law typically prohibits people from owning guns when they are involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution or deemed unfit for gun-possession by a judge. But when local law enforcement has a risky run-in with a mentally unstable person, laws and guidelines as to whether they can take his or her guns away, and for how long, vary widely. The Times examined court and police records of over 1,000 mental-health-related gun seizure cases, finding many loopholes and inconsistencies along the way.

“Perhaps most striking, in many of the cases examined across the country,” the authors write, “the authorities said they had no choice under the law but to return the guns after an initial seizure for safekeeping.” Common sense and self-protection dictate that cops disarm a person when he or she seems to pose a danger, but then there is often little that they can do when that person wants to get the weapons back later. Some states require a waiting period, some don’t; some states put the person’s name on a state or federal registry to try to prevent them from buying additional guns; some don’t.

But of course, seizure laws aren’t merely a logistical challenge; they are both politically and ethically charged. As Luo and McIntire write:

At the same time, mental health professionals worry that new seizure laws might stigmatize many people who have no greater propensity for violence than the broader population. They also fear that the laws will discourage people who need help from seeking treatment, while doing little to deter gun violence.

A recent issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, published this fall, made those very arguments. The study, entitled “Guns, Schools, and Mental Illness: Potential Concerns for Physicians and Mental Health Professionals,” examines all of the difficulties inherent in “preventing” gun violence from a legislative or health-provider perspective. The study shows that, not only is mental-illness-related violence incredibly hard to predict or prevent, but it can also be hard to agree on even how to talk about it. For instance, authors remind readers to be careful about what short-hand terms they use when discussing mental health issues and the law. The authors dispel one persistent myth here, and in so doing emphasize how hard establishing a so-called mental illness “registry” would be:

The condition that may most commonly come to mind when the public refers to mental illness and guns is schizophrenia, but ... the mental illness actually most likely to result in increased threatening behavior with a gun are bipolar disorder ... and drug dependence ... [which are] both potentially fluctuating, unpredictable states.

Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist, responded to the study with an editorial in the same issue of Proceedings. “We say to ourselves, well, we’ll just register all the mentally-ill, and it will solve this problem,” Bostwick said. “Firstly, it won’t solve the problem, and secondly, we don’t have the capacity to do the very thing that we think will make us feel better and safer.” Only a tiny fraction of people suffering from mental illness are “registered” in any way, he explained. Those registries only consist of people who have been committed to an institution or whose lives have intersected with the court system at some point (for reasons that do not necessarily involve risk of violence).

Bostwick emphasized an important point from the Mayo Clinic study, that most mass shootings aren’t spontaneous—most occur after weeks, months, or years of careful planning. It’s the scary truth that no mental-health-registry or waiting-period policy currently being discussed by lawmakers could stop someone determined to do such a thing. Bostwick also said that, as he is generally in favor of gun control, he had initially expected to disagree with a study that argued against the establishment of a mental health registry to restrict gun access to the ill. But when he read the study, he surprised himself by agreeing; There are just no easy solutions.