The Downside of the Mental-Health Angle

by Jonah Goldberg

I am very much in favor of committing more time, thought and resources to reforming the mental-health system in the wake of the Newtown shooting. It’s worth remembering that so many of these shootings — including the Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora massacres, not to mention the Reagan shooting —  were all committed by mentally ill people. Figuring out a way to keep people like them from getting guns is one of the few forms of gun control where there is a real bipartisan consensus. 

Personally, I’m trying to figure out what that actually means in terms of policy, so I’m basically just thinking out loud.. It’s worth keeping in mind that any serious effort to bar the mentally ill from getting a gun, must as a matter of logic, must treat a great many people unfairly. And I don’t just mean the unfairness of not letting them own a gun legally. The share of the mentally ill — or just mentally different, for want of a better phrase — who commit horrific mass murders is obviously tiny. Everyone of us knows or has known some odd people who fit the descriptions of some of these murderers before they murdered. You know what I mean. Socially awkward. Kept to himself. Emotionally conflicted. Etc. But none of them turned out to be mass murderers. In other words, for every one these people who goes off and kills people there are thousands, tens of thousands, even millions who are peaceful and harmless and who would never dream of slaughtering people. But the only way you’re going to stop the needles is to slap a label on the whole haystack. 

(A similar logic applies to the quest to deal with Hollywood and videogame violence. I am absolutely sure that some of the stuff spilled out into the popular culture encourages, at least at the margins, some individuals to do harm to others. But I am also just as sure that for every one person who sees a Batman movie and finds a compelling reason to shoot people at a theater, there are tens of millions of people who found the same movie cathartic or entertaining, but not murderously inspirational. The same goes for video games.) 

We inconvenience millions of people on a regular basis on the odd chance that one person out of, what, 10 million? a hundred million? will try to blow up or hijack a plane. That’s a burden we all agree to share. But it doesn’t last beyond the metal detector. Meanwhile, a much smaller group of people are put on a special list or even a no-fly list. We’re talking about creating a much more expanded version of a no-fly list, but for guns. By my lights it’s not the worst thing in the world if some mentally ill people are unfairly put on a no-gun list. But there’s also no disputing that there’s a nasty stigma that could come with that.  And that stigma, barring the commission of any actual crime, really would be unfair. Who has access to the no-gun list? Would you hire someone whose name appeared on a list of people who might be mass murderers? Would you rent an apartment to one?

Anyway, I don’t have any real answers, I just get the feeling that this is going to be more complicated than a lot of people think and I can see Democrats in particular deciding it’s just a lot easier to make it harder for everybody — mentally ill and healthy alike — to get guns rather than get into the messy parts of these issues.