Jenelle Clarke ~ The Good, the ‘Mad’ and the Ugly: Guns and Mental Health in the US

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”
Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s executive vice president, 21 December 2012

The year 2012 saw some of the worst gun violence in American history. Unsurprisingly, this has prompted many discussions and debates about America’s gun laws.  Topics currently include the interpretation of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) and whether it violates Americans’ constitutional rights to make any amendments.  It has also prompted a string of suggestions and comments, some well intentioned and some woefully ignorant, regarding the link between gun violence, gun law reform and mental health.  Despite the diversity of discussions, one thing is fairly clear – gun law reform and mental health are two issues hotly linked in US policy discussions, whether this link is actual, imagined or inflated.

I should declare at the outset that I am an American and I am in favour of gun control.  If this sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous (or more accurately Democrats Anonymous) confession, it’s because coming from a conservative, gun-owning, Republican family, this is no small thing.  We disagree on many issues, but there are some issues on which we do agree: the problem is not just about guns and the solution should not focus solely on gun law reform.  Blaming guns and/or even ‘bad guys’ with guns for the problem is too simplistic.  Moreover expecting gun law reform to sort out the issue is also short-sighted.  Rather, the difficulties facing the US are multiple, complex and intertwined with a cultural values system that does not just begin with our Constitution and Bill of Rights, but with the individualistic principles we are founded on.   These principles still underpin and shape Americans’ understanding of mental health and gun ownership.

Our system has its roots in the harsh life of the American frontier and still has remnants of John Smith’s 17th century principle, ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat’.  We have a limited social welfare system, no national healthcare system yet, and no national mental health care.  As Americans we are not protected by sick leave, as with our British and European counterparts.  Everything from minor to major physical ailments, doctor’s appointments and maternity leave have to be squeezed into limited paid sick leave days (usually 5 days).  If this is our approach to physical illness, you can imagine the position taken with mental health.  There is little room for mental distress within our system.  Or, as is often the case, for understanding.

Furthermore, the American system is unapologetically individualistic.  It’s our strength and our pride.  It’s also at times our weakness.  My American brother-in-law put it this way: in the States there is no ceiling on what you can do and who you can be, but there is no floor either.  If you fall, you will keep falling – there is no bottom.  Whether you jumped or were pushed is irrelevant.  You will get very little support in real terms.  Herein lies the crux of the matter: to many Americans, mental health is not a social issue.  It is in an individual problem.  Therefore if you are struggling with a mental health condition then it is your problem: yours to manage and yours to solve.

Our individualistic approach to mental health also extends to gun ownership.  Gun law opponents often point out that guns are an individual right, protected by the Second Amendment.  They argue that a few rogue shooters who go on a rampage is not the issue with the gun, it is the person holding the gun.  Everything from purposeful gun crimes to gun accidents is again, not a social problem, but an individual one.  Because it is people (not guns) that kill, the solution is not to amend laws, or to perhaps even begin to ask some challenging questions about the ethos of our society, it is simply to ensure that the person holding the gun is ‘good’ and responsible.

To this end, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has even suggested a national database.  Not for gun owners mind, but for those with a mental health condition. Which, according to the DSM criteria, would be approximately a quarter of our adult society.  And it’s not just the NRA – 38 states already have such a system.  Many people who are proponents of this approach would not consciously intend to say that people with a mental health problem are ‘bad’ and irresponsible.  But I cannot help wonder where this trail ends, and where the distinctions lay in terms of morality and mental health.  As with many forms of prejudice within our society, the association is tacit.

Whether you agree with the link made between mental health and gun misuse or not, the discussions are still often framed with an individualistic mindset at the core.  Yet an individualist approach may not be appropriate for issues such as mental health and guns.  Thus I question whether the roots of this really have to do with the Second Amendment but in actuality run much deeper through our culture and values.  Perhaps it is time to say that mental distress and guns are not your problems, they are our problems.

Posted by:
Jenelle Clarke
ESRC PhD Student (Sociology)
University of Nottingham
E: lqxjmcl@nottingham.ac.uk

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