Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Nuance of Gun Control

I’ve written numerous times about my disability. Some have encouraged me to be less open about it, some have applauded my courage. I’m often ambivalent upon which side to favor. Plainly put, I have bipolar disorder, draw a small monthly payment, and above all, have guaranteed government health insurance. As I read the legal language of President Obama’s executive order, it appears to me that everyone on federal Social Security disability for mental illness will be flagged as potentially dangerous. We are not the same, but to the unknowing, it is easy to stigmatize.

What has been put in force overreaches a little, but not in the way conservative commentators have said. It effectively disqualifies me from purchasing a sawed-off shotgun or a semi-automatic weapon, not that I ever would. It, in fact, disqualifies me from owning any gun. I believe in gun control, but to treat all people with mental illness the same is not fair. Most of us are not violent and will never be violent. Our own worst enemy is usually ourselves, and those of us who grab deadly weapons to address invisible grievances are in the minority.

Former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy has spoken about his own bipolar disorder and history of addiction. Occasionally erratic behavior aside, when he stepped down from the House, a prominent voice for our cause was lost. I wonder how he feels about being summarily disqualified in a very different way based on the worst fears of society. Before I stoke the fires of righteous indignation, the oldest trope in the book, I want to entertain a very different reality. It is not a stretch to go a step further. Effectively, everyone who has mental illness is now prohibited for owning and possessing any gun or guns. They are now treated like convicted felons, who lose their right to gun ownership and to vote upon conviction.

Whether this is right or wrong is something that we as a country have to decide. I’m not a gun owner, nor do I feel any need to be. Earlier in my life, like so many men, I learned to shoot and hunt. I never really took to the pastime, to be honest. If I even owned a handgun for personal protection, I want to stress that I'd give it up now and not complain too loudly. That proves how committed I am to a non-violent world, not that I don’t trust myself and my illness. If we take away guns, unlike the NRA slogan, the only people who might own them are violent, thoroughly insane offenders with a death wish and a desire to kill.

History is full of assassins with substantial mental health issues. But most of us suffer in private, feeling no desire to engage with the outside world, afraid to be lumped in with the ultra-violent or pitied for all the wrong reasons. A distinction needs to be made and constantly reinforced. It is fashionable to talk about the obsession and compulsion of America, the acts of the delusional and psychotic. In truth, the issue is much more nuanced.

Our real problem is a lack of adequate doctors and a lack of robust mental health treatment. The stigma of mental illness has subsided, but a lack of access to care and medications is part of the problem. Another part of the problem is a failure to intercede in the lives of the suffering. It may not be a popular sentiment, but I pity the workplace shooter while condemning his or her acts. That may be a stretch for us, because our primary tendency might be to bury our heads in the sand and play pretend.

An assault weapons ban and a closing of loopholes is a good first step, but it doesn’t go far enough. If we were committed to stopping random acts of violence, we would do the hard work of identifying every individual with homicidal tendencies. That’s not so easy, is it? Or maybe it is. I say again, as I have said many times before, this is why we can’t be hands-off and live without fear.

Mental illness runs in families and dysfunction is more common than we would like to admit. We can’t just leave it up to laws and government, we have to step in ourselves. That’s the only way to make this new order work. If we thought of each other as part of the same family, we wouldn’t need government to be our keeper.

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