In the ‘wrong hands’: How the gun control debate stigmatizes mental illness

On My Mind


I had to sign a form when I was released from the hospital stating that I couldn’t purchase a gun for five years. I was standing at a wooden counter in the center of the hospital hallway, going over discharge paperwork, when the nurse sprung it on me. She slipped it in with the rest of the papers she handed over — to her, the signature was merely a formality, a mundane part of her everyday work. Yet, as I speed-walked the hell out, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of the form I had just signed. The nurse’s words spun through my head like clothes in a washing machine.

The weird thing is, I’ve never even wanted a gun. I still don’t. I’ve always been for increased gun control to prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who will use them to endanger others — the so-called “wrong hands.” In California, the umbrella term “wrong hands” includes individuals convicted of certain crimes, individuals with a history of drug or alcohol abuse and individuals diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

Several conditions fall under California’s label of mental health-related issues, including being held for 72 hours in a psychiatric facility — which I fall under. Other conditions include threats of violence, adjudication and similar issues that involve danger to oneself or others. I can’t get past the implication that I am designated too unstable to possess a gun. Somehow, I am the one that everyone is worried about — a loose cannon, someone who poses a danger to society.

By walking into a mental hospital, I essentially signed away my sanity in the face of the law. The concept seems immediately logical: attempting to remove deadly weapons from individuals who are likely to be unstable. Yet the focus on those suffering from mental health conditions as likely to commit violent crimes feeds into the stereotype of the mentally ill being crazy and isolated from the rest of the population.

Conversation surrounding this stereotype has been amplified by the mass shooting in Las Vegas this month and other tragedies involving gun violence. In response to the shootings, there has been increased support of stricter gun laws, specifically those centered on mental health. The individuals who commit the crimes are labeled mentally ill or “crazy” and are essentially written off from society and considered less than human — it is easy for individuals to react to emotion-inducing crimes by reducing a shooter to their mental illness.

Take the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting as an example. News coverage of the shooting portrayed Adam Lanza as severely mentally ill, suffering from anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia — the conditions stacking up as evidence that he shouldn’t have access to a gun. Yet what the coverage failed to emphasize is that Lanza’s conditions were untreated, deprived of medication and counseling. Lanza’s crimes were not the result of a mental health condition, but a result of the lack of treatment of those conditions; it is likely that under a sufficient treatment plan, Lanza may not have committed the crime. This confusion leads to the stigmatization of mental illness in that it links violent crime to the symptoms of the illness(es). What should be an argument for better screening for mental health conditions ends up dehumanizing individuals without access to necessary resources.

California’s laws regarding mental health and gun control do not mention a specific disorder but instead group all severe conditions together, causing many mentally ill individuals to fall under the “high risk” category — a category associated with unstable and violent criminals. The ambiguity feeds directly into the stigma surrounding mental illness and attaches a negative connotation to identifying with a wide range of disorders.

Being barred from purchasing firearms did not have a significant impact on my daily life. I’m not trying to buy a gun. It did, however, change the way I think about myself in relation to my peers and others with mental health conditions. I feel ashamed to tell people about the regulation because I fear they will look at me differently — instead of someone suffering from an illness, they will see someone capable of violence.


Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.