Gun Laws and Mental Illness: Ridding the Statutes of Stigma

5 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Public Affairs 1 (2020)

56 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2019 Last revised: 23 Feb 2020

See all articles by Susan McMahon

Susan McMahon

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Date Written: November 22, 2019

Abstract

A man takes aim at people gathered in a public place, killing large numbers of them. In the hours, days, and weeks to come, police, politicians, and the media insist that he must have been mentally ill. This presumed strong link between mental illness and violence is so unquestioned that it is enshrined in federal and state laws that prohibit people with mental illness from possessing guns. But this assumption is deeply flawed.

This Article lays bare the lack of evidence of a direct line between mental health conditions and violent acts and argues that mental illness gun bans do little more than reinforce the harmful trope that people living with a mental health condition are intrinsically dangerous. These laws, which prohibit people with certain indicia of mental health conditions from purchasing or possessing firearms, fail at their supposed goal of preventing guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people. 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 danger 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 discarded in favor of laws that focus on stronger predictors of violence.

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

Suggested Citation

McMahon, Susan, Gun Laws and Mental Illness: Ridding the Statutes of Stigma (November 22, 2019). 5 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Public Affairs 1 (2020) , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3433116 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3433116

Susan McMahon (Contact Author)

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States

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