Why Banning the Mentally Ill from Gun Ownership is Not the Answer

With the recent attention on gun crime since the Connecticut school shootings, people are starting to talk more and more about mental illness in the context of gun ownership. In Governor Coumo’s NYC State of the State Address Wednesday afternoon, he passionately delivered plans for his 7 point agenda to stop gun violence in New York City. Point # 5 – Keep guns away from the mentally ill.

There has been lots of talk about creating state-wide lists of people who are mentally ill to prevent them from purchasing guns. To some, this is a viable option for a solution but I disagree.

We all have a tendency to rally behind a cause when it immediately affects us. We’ve seen that there is a link between mental illness and gun violence in the last gun shooting cases that have made big news – Connecticut, the Aurora theater shooting, Virginia Tech and Columbine. After these crimes occurred, we all asked ourselves how we can prevent the mentally ill from responding through gun violence. We argue until we are blue in the face about whether it’s the person or the gun and how we can stop “the madness,” to quote Coumo.

But creating a list of the diagnosed is not the answer. Black listing and stigmatizing the mentally ill will not reduce gun violence. As long as we continue to label people with mental illnesses as “crazy” and “a disruption to society” people who live with mental illness will not seek help.

I say live with mental illness, not suffer because everyone is affected by mental illness always, not just when people shot up theaters or kill babies. I guarantee you know someone who has or is affected by a mental illness. The only reason you might not know is because that person is taught to be too ashamed to tell you.

 If we don’t change the way that we talk and interact with the mentally ill on a daily basis, nothing will change.

I spent roughly 20 years of my life living with two mentally ill caretakers – my mother and grandmother (rest her soul). My father abused my mother and we left him when I was 4. It wasn’t until I was an adult that he confessed to me that he had no resources and no one to talk to about my mother’s illness. He defaulted back to the way he was raised, with violence and verbal abuse, and looking back now, he knows that if he had more information on how bipolar disorder affected my mother’s behavior, he would have reacted differently.

So I grew up an only child with two woman whose emotions I may never understand. I watched them both struggle in silence for decades because of societies unwillingness to talk opening about illnesses of the mind. Their willingness to continue to love me and each other through their personal storms is what has crafted my views on strong womanhood. But they learned to adapt through silence. I stayed just as silent with them. I didn’t want to be labeled as “crazy” because of my bloodline and I was a child who had little control over the situation.

This is the core of the issue. The language we use around mental illness leaves children alone and keeps spouses and couples uninformed. We need educated adults to create strong relationships and healthy children who don’t grow up in a world where illness is overlooked until tragedy strikes.

Clearly this is an issue that is close my heart and it’s a complicated one. I haven’t spoken to my mother in two years because of her behaviors and her attitude towards me as a result of her childhood trauma and bipolar disorder. When I think of moments of her rages, I certainly don’t think she should have ownership of a high-powered military assault weapon. (For the record, I don’t think any civilian, regardless of their mental state, needs to have access to an automatic weapon.) But that doesn’t mean that we need to put everyone who has experience with a mental illness on a list that bars them from owning guns. What’s next? Barring them from working heavy machinery? From piloting air planes or performing surgeries? You’d be surprised how many people would not show up for work!

Mental illness manifests in so many ways that we are still trying to understand. As a result, illnesses are under diagnosed and misdiagnosed.

So before a gun gets into the hands of someone who experiences reality differently, let’s look at the person. Let’s put in preventative actions on a daily basis which is as simple as being accountable for each other.

 If you see someone who is struggling, encourage them to seek help without shame or discrimination. Do this every day because mental illness affects you even if you don’t think it does. Our world, our people and our child are our collective responsibility. We keep each other safe by being informed and taking actions when we see something.

So this year and all years moving forward, let’s work at raising our consciousness around the issue of mental illness and take action when we see something. If we start this work right now, we won’t have to police the rights of people based on their mental state.

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