Friday, 5 April 2013

How I Ended up on the Front Line of US Gun Control

As a left-leaning European, I was in favour of controlling access to guns even before Adam Lanza walked into a school in Connecticut with one last December and used it to kill 26 people. It seems so utterly clear to me that restricting the sorts of guns that people are allowed to own cannot not be considered anything like a serious violation of anybody's human rights. I was relieved, therefore, that one of the outcomes of that dreadful morning was that the issue seemed to be getting seriously discussed in the USA and for most of the rest of 2012, seemed to be gaining the sort of momentum required for real change.

Unfortunately, a strange sub-genre of gun control arguments emerged at exactly the same time. This is best epitomized in the audaciously titled Blue Review article "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" written by journalist Liza Long about her experience of her son, who is emotionally volatile and often extremely behaviourally disruptive. Long's capacity to delicately articulate sensitive truths about her difficult relationship with her child (even if she didn't explore likely motivations for his behaviour) served to hide the fact that she was fueling a pernicious way of thinking about what was going wrong with guns in this country. Instead of suggesting that the government could restrict the sorts of guns people are able to buy (as happened in the UK after the Dunblane School shooting in 1996), Long was inadvertently adding weight to the view that they should restrict the sorts of people who are able to buy guns.*

Two and a half months ago a version of this (the SAFE act) was passed into law across New York State, and since then it has been coming into effect as its provisions are disseminated to mental health clinicians. Yesterday morning in my weekly clinical meeting, the assembled trainee psychologists were told that any clients who expressed a serious intention of killing themselves or others (regardless of how they intended to do it) will henceforth have to be reported to the Department of Criminal Justice Services. This information will create a list, which can be cross referenced with existing lists of registered firearms owners. Anyone who appears on both may be subjected to a police raid and have their gun confiscated.

There are a number of criticisms of this idea from the perspective of a psychologist. One obvious point, which has already been made, is that it disrupts the environment of trust and safety that allows successful therapy to occur (try telling someone who has been experiencing acute paranoid feelings that you may have to report them to the government). However, of more relevance to me (and of course to the theme of this blog) is that it essentially creates a new bureaucratic category for people with mental health problems to fall into. The intended ramifications of this category are of little concern to me, I don't feel a strong emotional pull to affirm anyone's right to keep guns. What I do object to are the social implications of the new category, which are serious and which only serve to perpetuate an already existing myth about mental health and gun control, namely (and to be glib) "Guns don't kill people, crazy people do".

I am not arguing that categories, when used sensitively, cannot be useful indicators to risk (in fact I have previously argued the reverse!). As a clinician I already have a duty to observe for signs that a person is at risk of suicide or homicide. This includes such information as can be gleaned from any diagnoses that have been made, and is entirely appropriate. This law goes beyond that, demanding the disclosure of that information to a third party, a law enforcement agency no less, as though certain forms of mental health problem were in themselves vaguely criminal. It does so publicly, with implications for how the general population thinks about the risks presented by those who seek treatment. It's a maneuvre that subtly shifts the blame for high school shootings away from the fact that it's easy for anyone in this country to obtain a gun, and onto a group of people who, by dint of a messy mix of medical, legal and bureaucratic classifications come to be viewed as inherently unstable or unpredictable. This is incredibly pernicious, it is scapegoating, and it is a dreadfully inefficient way to avert future deaths

*The specific implications of Long's piece for how people think about mental health are discussed in this excellent blog post from The Girl Who Was Thursday.

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