Opposing a Mental Health Gun Check Registry

I have been challenged by schizophrenia, in remission, and I don’t want a gun. To hear all the blame of violence on “deranged lunatics,” it seems most people carry untrue stereotypes about schizophrenia. For example, despite the common mislabel, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual excludes split personality as a schizophrenic symptom.

Despite all the hype in the news, we are not necessarily violent. Walsh, Buchanan, and Fahy (2002) reviewed the relevant literature and concluded that although the rate of violence among people with mental disorders can be four times higher than the general population, “only a small proportion of societal violence can be attributed to persons with schizophrenia.” In their own study in Victoria, Australia Wallace et al (1998) linked court convictions with a state-wide register of all contacts with public psychiatric services and found “the probability that any given patient with schizophrenia will commit homicide is tiny.”

I am opposed to the mental health registry. Illness is not a crime. Gun checks should only reference documented cases of violent offenders, disabled or not. It’s unjust to include people who might or might not commit a crime. But if the government does expand its mental health database, the general public should never have access it. The United States has a HIPPA Privacy Rule restricting the release of medical information. We should not relax this law in order to strengthen the other.

What if instead we tallied a list of temper-prone “normal” people who claim they have a constitutional right to assault rifles, as though there’s a right to hand grenades, and stopped them from buying guns? It is possible that vengeful people with no psychiatric history, such as bullied teenagers or fired employees, perpetuate the horrific incidents of mass violence we hear about so much on TV. They’re not necessarily crazy. Maybe they’re just angry. Instead of releasing a punch, they’re triggering an automatic weapon.

Stigma makes everything worse. A sitcom deriding “mental defectives” is supposed to be funny. Unlike racial slurs, parents rarely correct children who say “psycho.” Derogatory words can hurt. We are human beings even thought we might lose the ability to reason. Besides, medication can usually mend the disorganized thoughts.

Stigma causes discrimination. After I told a landlord I had a mental health problem, he told me my illness was his reason for denying me an apartment in a good neighborhood. When I was a teacher at a school for psychiatric children and in the closet about my illness, the principal told me she wouldn’t hire a schizophrenic. If it happened to me, it happens to many. How would my neighbors treat me if they found out from a public database I had a mental illness?

A registry of mental disorders makes a bad stigma worse. It could cause the next Columbine, because a psychologist can teach a potential shooter how to manage his anger, but a young man mocked and ostracized for being gay just might say to himself, “I’m not like that list of psychos. I don’t need a shrink,” then turn up at the next gun show, and riddle his classmates with bullets.

But perhaps more critically for the nation than for a small group of its citizens, as we approach the big-brother-is-watching-you society George Orwell predicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we should reign in the will of the majority. In our feverish pursuit of security, a restriction on the privacy of one chips away at the freedom of all. The United States has long held the beacon of democracy as a guide for the rest of the world. At what point do we cut off the power to the flame that sheds its light over Manhattan Island? We may never know. Liberty may slip away bit by bit with no clear sign of its moment of departure. Perhaps much later on, when one big chunk breaks off into a wider expanse of time, when we have accumulated a sum total of many smaller losses, will we notice that we are not as free as we thought and wrestle back control from the bold reach of Bush-era government.

Wallace, C., Mullen, P., Burgess, P., et al (1998) Serious criminal offending and mental disorder. Case linkage study. British Journal of Psychiatry. 172, 477-484.

Walsh, E., Buchanan, A. Fahy, T. (2002) Violence and schizophrenia: examining the evidence. British Journal of Psychiatry Psychiatry. 180, 490-495.