Lawyers, Guns, and Mental Illness

42 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2019

See all articles by Susan McMahon

Susan McMahon

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: August 6, 2019


A man takes aim at people gathered in a public place, killing large numbers of them. In the weeks to come, police, politicians, and the media insist that he must have been mentally ill, calling him a “lunatic” and a “psychopath.”

This storyline replays over and over after every mass shooting in America, most recently after the shootings at a Wal-Mart in El Paso and outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. A horrific event happens, and blame is laid at the feet of mental illness, even when the perpetrators had no signs of a mental health condition. This link is so unquestioned that it is enshrined in our laws prohibiting people living with mental illness from possessing guns. But it is deeply wrong.

This Article lays bare the lack of evidence connecting mental health conditions to violent acts and argues that mental illness gun bans do nothing more than reinforce the harmful trope that people living with a mental health condition are intrinsically dangerous. These laws fail at their supposed goal of preventing guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people because they define the prohibited group in ways that both include many individuals who will never be violent and exclude many individuals who pose a risk. Moreover, this focus on mental illness distracts lawmakers from traits that better predict violence, such as past violent acts and substance abuse.

The dangerousness stigma has real consequences: It makes employers less likely to hire individuals with mental illness, landlords less likely to rent to them, and legislators less likely to allocate money to programs to serve them. It also makes police more likely to arrest or shoot them.

Because mental illness gun bans do not accomplish their goals and instead impose deep psychological and societal harms, they should be repealed in favor of a renewed focus on stronger predictors of violence.

Keywords: gun control, gun safety, firearms, mental health conditions, mental illness, stigma

Suggested Citation

McMahon, Susan, Lawyers, Guns, and Mental Illness (August 6, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Susan McMahon (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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