Dominion of New York

The 411

December 17, 2012

Why Are the Mentally Ill Still Bearing Arms?

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Written by: Kelly Virella

Adam Lanza


t’s hard to imagine how a sane person could kill his mother by shooting her in the face, then break into an elementary school and kill 27 people — including 20 children and himself. So it’s no wonder that as soon as reports surfaced of shy, socially awkward 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s Newtown, Connecticut killing spree, mental illness became one of the culprits. But is it really?

Friends of Adam Lanza’s mother appeared on 60 Minutes last night reporting that the killer had been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. But according to an article in The Lancet by Vanderbilt University professor Jonathan Metzl, our tendency to blame the mentally ill for gun violence is probably unwarranted.

Mentally ill people actually don’t commit a whole lot of crime — even gun crimes, the article says. One in four U.S. adults struggles with a mental health disorder in a given year and 10 percent of children have serious mental or emotional disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

The Lancet says:

According to Columbia University psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum, less than 3—5% of American crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of these crimes that involve guns are actually lower than the national average—particularly when alcohol and drugs are taken out of the mix. For Appelbaum, the focus on so-called mentally ill crime obfuscates awareness of a far more important set of risk predictors of gun violence: substance use and past history of violence.

The mentally ill have only recently become a scapegoat for American violence, the article says. In the first half of the 20th century, schizophrenia was considered a disease “marked by ‘genteel docility’.” It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s, when the FBI began to falsely ascribe mental illness and schizophrenia to armed black militants like Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams that Congress began to urge gun control, passing the Gun Control Act of 1968.

“FBI profilers famously diagnosed Malcolm X with “pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia” … The FBI hung Armed and Dangerous posters throughout the southern states warning citizens about Robert F Williams, the controversial head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and author of a manifesto, Negroes With Guns, that advocated gun rights for African Americans. According to the posters, “Williams allegedly has possession of a large quantity of firearms, including a .45 caliber pistol…He has previously been diagnosed as schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence.”

One reason the mentally ill keep bearing arms is that we keep changing the definition of who is mentally ill, The Lancet argues. Now the boogeyman isn’t armed black radicals. It’s the armed white male lunatics who have comprised a majority of the nation’s mass murderers — 44 of the 62 that have occurred in the past 30 years, according to Mother Jones

We do need a better mental health care system and no doubt many of these killers were clinically insane. Mother Jones reports:

Acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them, with at least 35 of the killers committing suicide on or near the scene. (Seven others died in police shootouts they had little hope of surviving, regarded by some experts as “suicide by cop.”) And according to additional research we completed recently, at least 38 of them displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings. 

But 38 mentally ill mass murderers leaves 24 mass murderers un-accounted for. Were they actually mentally ill? 

The Lancet cautions us against prematurely concluding that they were:

Understanding a person’s mental state is vital to understanding their violent actions. But focusing so centrally on individualised psychology isolates the problem onto lone “deviants” while making it ever-harder to address how mass shootings might reflect cultural as well as individual states of mind.

The takeaway: Sane folks need to do some soul-searching too.

h/t David Leonard 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Apsergers Syndrome is not a mental illness. 

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah