Hatred is not a mental illness

For the most part I’ve avoided political topics in this blog, and I don’t intend to change that. However, our President has crossed a line that I can’t, as an advocate for mentally ill folks, ignore. This week he distanced himself from his promises to do something meaningful about advocating for tougher gun laws when he described mass murderers as “mentally ill” and suggested  that improved care for the mentally ill would prevent mass shootings. We may be sickened by the violence of these hateful acts, but that doesn’t mean that the perpetrators are sick, in the sense of being mentally ill. It’s an insult to all mentally ill people to conflate hatred with psychopathology. People with diagnoses of mental illnesses are  no more likely to be dangerous to others than people without mental illnesses, and are more likely to be of danger to themselves than to others.

I know what I’m talking about. Throughout most of my career in the mental health system, I was certified as a Designated Examiner in the Probate Court. That meant that I routinely assessed people and testified in the Probate Court as to whether they met the criteria for involuntary commitment to psychiatric facilities. The two primary criteria are that the person is credibly diagnosed with a mental illness, and that he or she is at risk for harm to self or others. I was proud to play a part in a system that protects the civil rights of mentally ill persons, and assures that their right to due process is honored.

Xenophobia and race hatred aren’t symptoms of mental illness. They are learned prejudices, not psychopathologies. The President would have us believe that lethal hatred is a symptom of mental illness, not a product of hatred for “the Other.” Our national mental health system is a disgrace and needs to be adequately funded. But even if we had a system that provided adequate treatment for all of our mentally ill citizens, the impact on our national crisis of mass shootings would be negligible. It’s domestic terrorists that we need to worry about, not mentally ill people.

I was raised with guns. My father, an Army officer, was a world class expert on small arms and an avid NRA member. He saw to it that his sons learned to shoot at an early age, in NRA gun clubs – first with bb guns, then with .22 caliber rifles. I own guns, and I taught my wife to shoot them. A reasonable interpretation of the Second Amendment would protect the right of most citizens to own handguns, hunting and target rifles, and shotguns; but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. You can’t buy or own hand grenades, flame throwers, bombs, or tanks – and that’s how it should be. We need to re-instate the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, such as the M-16 (AR-15). We also need to ban clips and magazines that hold ten or more rounds. Until we do this, the body count from mass shootings will continue to rise.

The signers of the Constitution couldn’t have envisioned our modern military weapons, or the mass shootings we see all too often these days, The rifles of the eighteenth century weren’t as accurate as modern rifles, and had to be re-loaded after every shot fired. Today we have semi-automatic rifles, which fire one round each time the trigger is pulled. Fully automatic rifles, which fire rapidly as long as the trigger is held down, are rightfully banned; but some semi-automatic rifles can be easily modified to be fully automatic. With clips that hold from a dozen to a hundred rounds, such rifles are weapons of war, designed for rapid slaughter. They should not be for sale to civilians.

A ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons won’t completely solve the problem, as there are already millions of them out there. However, the overwhelming majority are in the hands of responsible gun owners, who will never use them for mass murder. As long as they’re not allowed to be traded or sold, most of them don’t present a threat  to public safety. But an absolute ban on sales would make it harder for people who decide they want to kill people to acquire an assault rifle. A massive public relations campaign promoting a national, voluntary buy-back program would gradually reduce the number of assault weapons over time.

We also need to have a national dialogue about the “Otherizing” of racial and ethnic minorities by hate groups – the “Us vs. Them”mentality. School children need to be educated about the stereotypes that are being used to indoctrinate people to fear and hate people who don’t look like them or believe in all the things they believe in. They need to be able to recognize the lies that are told to recruit domestic terrorists. Part of the reform of our mental health system needs to be a public education program, to try to end the stigma about mental illness that is so prevalent in our society. Mentally ill people have enough problems with stigma as it is, without being blamed for mass murder.