Dear Congress: I Don’t Need a Gun, I Need Health Care

On Wednesday, the Republican Party pretended to care about the rights of the mentally ill by repealing an Obama-era regulation that prevented people with diagnosed disorders from purchasing firearms.

To be clear, the regulation was absolutely stigmatizing; I’m happy to see it go. It was drafted after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, because the shooter had Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder — neither of which increases a person’s likelihood to be violent.

There are plenty of actually useful regulations and laws that could have been introduced during the long-overdue conversation about gun control that followed the Sandy Hook tragedy. For example: getting rid of guns designed for anything besides hunting, limiting clip size, or, you know, not letting the federal assault weapons ban expire in 2004. But this grandstanding the GOP is doing right now, pretending that the regulation repeal has anything to do with them caring about those of us with mental illness, is grotesque.

Behold, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) — a leader in the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act — as he panders to a group of Americans whose health care he’s trying to revoke. From Politico:

“Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) spearheaded the repeal effort and said the regulation unfairly stigmatizes the disabled and infringes on their constitutional right to bear arms. He said that the mental disorders covered through the regulation are filled with ‘vague characteristics that do not fit into the federal mentally defective standard’ prohibiting someone from buying or owning a gun.
Grassley cited eating and sleep disorders as examples of illnesses that could allow a beneficiary to be reported to the background check system if they also have a third party to manage their benefits.
‘If a specific individual is likely to be violent due to the nature of their mental illness, then the government should have to prove it,’ Grassley said.”

Chuck, please. No one’s buying this bullshit. You have a 100% rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which donates tens of thousands of dollars to your re-election campaign every six years so that you’ll do things like oppose the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban — a good and lifesaving piece of legislation. Public health non-profits, groups devoted to feeding the poor and hungry, and unions like the American Nurses Association regularly give you a 0% rating.

Meanwhile, the ACA, which you’re working so diligently to gut, has been described by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) as providing “the largest expansion of mental health…disorder coverage in a generation.”

You care about protecting the gun industry, not those with mental illness, and your hypocrisy is transparent.

Also, I don’t seem to remember you sticking up for the mentally ill two years ago when the misogyny-driven shooting spree in Isla Vista, California left six people dead and incited a barrage of talking heads of every variety calling the shooter “crazy” and spouting off about how this proves we need tougher gun laws. (I gave him the benefit of the doubt and Googled around; there was no pushback on the mental illness stigmatizing.) You could have weighed in with the relevant facts at the time. While I don’t expect you to publicly remind people that misogyny and hatred are not mental illnesses, you could have made your NRA donors happy by decrying the underlying misinformation used to deny a sizable segment of the population their supposed Second Amendment right to defend themselves via firearm. That you didn’t — and haven’t until now, that I could find — is the latest proof that you give zero fucks about me.

Allow me to do your job for you.

A quick Google search of “mentally ill more likely to be victims” came back with almost a million results — including the HHS website. You’d think all those elected officials pontificating on the fitness of one in five Americans to do anything constitutionally protected would be willing to listen to a governmental authority, so let’s start there. Here’s what the HHS site says:

Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
Fact: The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.

There are also studies by the BBCNC State University, and Northwestern University that report similar findings on the myth of mentally ill people being prone to violence, to cite just a few of the hundreds at our legislators’ fingertips thanks to Google.

Meanwhile, to reiterate, people with mental illness are TEN TIMES MORE LIKELY to be a victim of violent crime. Study after study after study after study has outlined that the person who’s most at risk if someone with a serious mental illness has access to a gun is THE PERSON WITH THE MENTAL ILLNESS. In fact, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. with 41,000 lives lost each year — double the number of lives lost to homicide. That’s not homicide involving a gun, that’s homicide as a whole.

So yes, we have too many guns in this country; our phallic attachment to things that shoot is a dangerous part of our toxic masculinity. Yes, we need background checks and to get rid of high-powered guns with huge clips that fire lots of bullets quickly and efficiently. However. If you want to do something for the mentally ill that’s gun related, how about disarming the police and giving us access to truly comprehensive health care to keep us from feeling hopeless and without options?

Yes, I did say disarm the police.

In 2015, the Washington Post tracked shootings nationwide. During just the first half of the year, 25% of the nearly 400 people shot and killed by police were identified by police or family members as mentally ill. That’s about 100 people. In one half of a year.

Need more? You got it.

The Treatment Advocacy Center in 2014 published an analysis of police shootings over the course of 40 years, 1980–2008. They concluded that “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”

Why is Congress, suddenly acting as if it cares deeply about those with mental illness, not addressing the real epidemic involving mental health and guns?

There are no comforting answers to this question.

It’s not just politicians who are at fault for perpetuating dangerous stigmas about those with mental illness, while not doing anything to actually support them.

“We need better statistics to be able to focus the attention of policymakers on the problem and bon solutions that work,” Treatment Advocacy Center Executive Director John Snook says on the organization’s website. “Without accurate numbers, policymakers cannot make informed decisions regarding the proper allocation of resources or programs that would reduce the consequences of untreated severe mental illness.”

I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, the advocacy effort to get us those stats, disarm the police, and end dangerous myths about mental illness have a huge road block: mainstream publishing and news outlets.

I could only get through the second paragraph of the New York Times editorial board’s shameful op-ed “Congress Says, Let the Mentally Ill Buy Guns” before I wanted to pull my hair out. The headline alone is beyond irresponsible for the newspaper of record in this country; the opening statement is enraging.

“For all their dysfunction, the Republican Senate and House have managed to act with lightning speed in striking down a sensible Obama administration rule designed to stop people with severe mental problems from buying guns.”

“Severe mental problems” was later expanded upon: “These individuals suffer schizophrenia, psychotic disorders and other problems to such an extent that they are unable to manage their financial affairs and other basic tasks without help.”

So, problems that make it challenging to manage finances indicates a potential for violence? I guess we’re adding the majority of Congress to the national background check database.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), whose “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” could have posed a serious risk to an individual’s ability to determine the trajectory of their own treatment — with particular risk to the LGBTQ community — is the editorial board’s primary source of support for the now-defunct regulation. Despite being a practicing psychologist, Murphy’s legislative work on mental health is a mixed bag, and leaning on his words to support a harmfully stigmatizing position shows an ignorance (at best) when it comes to this issue.

This piece is, to be clear, not a screed against gun control, which this country is in dire need of. But I humbly ask that the New York Times editorial board — along with editorial boards and writers across the country — spend some time familiarizing themselves with the legislative measures that could actually save lives, while also focusing on the real challenges facing those of us with mental illnesses. Until the misinformation and stigma surrounding mental health is broken down, the conflation between mental illness and violence will continue to inhibit advocacy and progress.

After all, if the paper of record can’t get it right, how are we ever going to get through to a hypocritical group of legislators using the mentally ill to further the agenda of the NRA while hanging us out to dry by working to revoke our health care?

Read more at The Establishment, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


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