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Guns & Mental Health



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THE FIRST STEP IN BEING ABLE TO DEBATE THE TOPIC IS BEING ABLE TO UNDERSTAND IT

I didn’t know him well, but he changed my life. Sadly, I never got to tell him. 

At the NRA Annual Meeting in 2017, my husband and I flew directly to the show from a hunt in Argentina. 

I was in the middle of fundraising and renovating the Cody Firearms Museum and basically going a mile a minute — as is customary for me. I was exhausted, under the weather, frustrated with fundraising, and I was sad.

One bright moment of the show was a lunch I had with Bob Owens, former editor of Bearing Arms. He was only an acquaintance, but I was excited to have the opportunity to get to know him better. Lunch turned into a two-hour conversation about our lives, careers, and experiences within the industry. 

I remember leaving the lunch feeling rejuvenated and optimistic. 

However, a few weeks later, a Facebook post from Bob came across my newsfeed. Not long after the post, Bob had taken his own life.

His death had a profound impact on my life. Shortly thereafter, I found a therapist and began a long journey, which would ultimately take more than two years to get an accurate diagnosis. Along the way, I felt elements of shame and hesitation to talk openly about my diagnosis for fear of judgment or repercussion from both the gun community and those outside it.

Ultimately, and fortunately, when I publicly admitted to having bipolar II and post-traumatic stress disorders, it was positively received. However, the number of firearms owners who privately reached out to me about how afraid they were to discuss their struggles, and in some cases, even to seek help, was concerning. 

If you’re reading this, you likely feel as exhausted with polarizing guns and mental health arguments as we are.

Unfortunately, that fear isn’t unwarranted. 

Anytime something bad happens with a firearm, the world tends to blame guns and/or mental illness. While many people familiar with guns are quick to explain the gray areas of firearms technology when discussing legislation, many (on both sides of the debate) are less likely to see that same complexity when discussing mental health. 

For example, the terms mental health and mental illness are often incorrectly used interchangeably. Mental health is a broader term that encapsulates emotional and psychological wellbeing. Mental illness is an ailment.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM-5, there are almost 300 mental health disorders. Furthermore, those disorders fall under many subcategories, including mood, anxiety, personality, eating, trauma, and substance abuse disorders. 

Despite the sheer volume of diagnosable mental illnesses, these terms are reduced to oversimplified talking points often used for marketing and political gain. In some ways, mental health and mental illness are generalized in a similar fashion to gun-related technology, such as those labeled with false categorizations like “assault weapons” and “ghost guns.” 

THE SCAPEGOAT

Unsurprisingly, the topic that gets the most attention in this country is mass violence. While horrific and tragic, mass shootings make up only a fraction of a percentage (0.3 percent) of gun deaths in the country. And every time a mass shooting occurs, the topic of mental illness is raised. 

Grassroots efforts such as Walk the Talk America are seeking to change the discussion on guns and mental health to get people with opposing viewpoints to work together.

However, it may surprise people to know that the connection between diagnosed mental illness and committing violent acts is almost nonexistent. Outside of mass shootings, other firearms-related violence is most often the result of gang and organized crime. In these scenarios as well, mental illness statistically plays a minor role, if any. 

Only 3 to 5 percent of people diagnosed with severe mental illness are prone to violence at all, and this small likelihood of violence usually only manifests itself when compounded with an additional factor such as substance abuse or a psychotic episode. Over the past decade, multiple studies have been conducted on the connection between mental illness and firearms ownership.

Kids To Kings, a partner of Walk the Talk America, working with youth at the Life Preparatory School in Albany, Georgia.

Two large studies were produced by the Consortium for Risk Based Firearms Policy and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Both ultimately refuted an assumed overt connection between mental illness and violence. 

For example, the Consortium reasoned that while “restricting firearm access on the basis of certain dangerous behaviors is supported by the evidence; restricting access on the basis of a mental health diagnosis is not.” 

The APA also concluded that most firearms-related violence is unrelated to mental illness, therefore asserting that even better access to mental health care ultimately would have a limited impact on reducing violence. As a result, many researchers believe that even if you restrict people with mental illness from owning firearms, it’ll do virtually nothing to reduce the bottom line of gun-related crime.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

According to the Director of Research, Policy, and Advocacy at Children’s Health Dr. Jill D. McLeigh, legislative policies that are created allegedly to prevent school shootings and other violence are the result of society’s irrationality and fear. According to McLeigh, the scapegoat for this fear-based policy is mental illness (American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2015). 

However, what they mean by the term is up for debate. In fact, President Obama’s 2016 executive order to “reduce gun violence” used the terms “mental illness” and “mental health” nearly 30 times without defining them once. 

Most gun people lament the lack of knowledge of firearms technology by people who are trying to regulate guns, and the same can be said about the government’s lack of any attempt to define mental health and mental illness. 

Walk the Talk America co-brands with various companies to get the message out about their mission.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 was one of the first laws that opened the door for this discussion. Under this law as well as the National Instant Check System, the government prohibits those adjudicated as “mentally defective” or having been “committed to a mental institution or an addiction center” from owning firearms. 

At the state level, the prohibition of firearms ownership for those considered mentally ill vary. In some extreme cases, the wording is so unclear that even going to a counselor’s office for couple’s therapy may be interpreted as grounds for loss of your Second Amendment rights.

In many cases, these definitions, and the ability to determine if people are mentally ill to the point of self-harm or harm to others, fall subjectively onto therapists — many of whom know little to nothing about guns and gun owners. 

Training mental health clinicians on the range at the Walk the Talk America Cultural Competence Course.

To complicate matters, some states have what are called “Duty to Warn” or Tarasoff laws. In 1976, the laws resulted from Tarasoff v Regents of the University of California. Citing confidentiality ethics and laws, a therapist failed to report that a patient had made specific death threats to a woman and her parents. The patient later killed the woman. Since then, mental health care professionals in certain states must report if they believe their patients are a danger to self or others. 

The law states that the criteria for determining duty to warn is that the patient must have specific identifiable knowledge and the ability to act. If they meet these criteria, the therapist must warn the individual and law enforcement. However, it’s ultimately up to the clinician to determine the meaning of those words. 

And sadly, due to these changes in laws coupled with a lack of understanding of gun owners, unintended consequences have resulted. Ironically, despite recent efforts to increase access to mental health care, if patients are afraid of losing their rights and refuse to seek treatment, then expanding access is moot. 

REDUCE THE STIGMA

On one side, the anti-gun movement gets so wrapped up in focusing legislation on comparatively small numbers of deaths via crime. 

On the other, the pro-2A movement gets so wrapped up defending the guns themselves that they both wind up blaming mental illness. Yet through the din, both sides often miss the elephant in the room, which, if targeted, has the greatest potential to reduce 60 percent of all deaths with a firearm. This number-one killer is suicide. 

Michael Sodini speaking on firearms and mental health at the inaugural 2A Rally in Washington, DC.

It seems like such an easy, identifiable, and unifying problem to focus on to save lives. Yet somehow it seems to unify segments of the non-gun and gun community in the opposite way that it should — by unintentionally stigmatizing a group of people that may need help the most. 

From a gun owner’s perspective, the demonization of a genre to feed fear-based policy should be relatable. 

If they can see the issues with using and regulating fabricated terms such as assault weapons, ghost guns, and high-capacity magazines, then they of all people should be able to see the warning signs of generalizing mental health. So, in this respect, gun owners and the industry should be the real leaders in raising awareness as a means to reduce suicide. After all, the people who take their lives are friends, customers, and allies. 

Reducing the stigma of mental illness within the gun community is vital, as is educating the mental health community about firearms ownership. And fortunately, some organizations, such as Walk the Talk America, are already leading the way. 

The hope is to move beyond fear-based policies to get to the root of the real problem, recognize mental illness and firearms ownership aren’t mutually exclusive, and help those who are struggling realize that they’re not alone.  

Co-branded mental health screening flyer inserted into Vara Safety product packaging.

If you want further information, visit Walk the Talk America’s website for additional resources as well as free and anonymous mental health screenings: walkthetalkamerica.org.

If you’re struggling with self-harm and suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to talk to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

STATISTICS

According to CDC data, in 2020 in the United States, there were 24,297 suicides, 19,411 homicides, and 1,532 negligent/legal intervention/undetermined firearms-related deaths. 

Over the past four years, 60 percent of all firearms deaths are suicides, 38 percent are homicides, and only 0.3 percent are connected to mass shootings.

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