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Friday, December 15, 2017
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Mental Health and Gun Control, ? Aid for Control of Violence #8

The latest iteration of the “madman” killer is the entrance onto the media stage is the dangerous loner. These killers are the “unstable, angry White men who should never have had access to firearms.” Metzl and MacLeish, op cit in previous blogposts in this series. ABC news told of plans for geneticists to study the Newtown shooter’s DNA for “abnormalities or mutations”, and the Associated Press described plans to do research on the brains of mass shooters, including those loners who had, according to CBS, “trouble looking people in the eye.” The combination of the linked descriptors: unstable, angry, white, mentally disturbed, gun-obsessed, and killers to describe shooters is a relatively recent phenomenon, and strongly appears to be linked to concepts of white male chauvinism, special privileged individualism, and right wing politics—all characteristics of the gun rights advocates crowd. When the killer is black, the blame goes to so called black culture or black activist politics as opposed to individually disordered brains; and there is no demand for brain research and autopsies for killers from that culture. This is despite the fact that there are plenty of mass murders committed by people of various races who are mentally disordered.

During the era of the violent 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, Bromberg and Simon described ‘protest psychosis’ which drove ‘Negro men’ to insanity, Archives of General Psychiatry. This hypothesis which generally appeared to be intended towards excusing the behavior of black men whose hostility was aroused to the level of insanity because of maltreatment by Caucasians. Raskin et al. went so far as to propose  that Blacks with schizophrenia rated higher than Whites on a set of “hostility variables” because of delusional beliefs that “their civil rights were being compromised or violated.” Brody further argued that “growing up as a Negro in America may produce distortions or impairments in the capacity to participate in the surrounding culture which will facilitate the development of schizophrenic types of behavior.” All of this led a number of prominent psychiatrists and psychologists to champion the opinion that, “the incidence of hallucinations was significantly higher among Negro schizophrenics than among white schizophrenics first admitted to the state hospital system” and that “there are factors in the Negro culture that predispose to more severe schizophrenic illness.” [All described in Metzl and MacLeish, op cit]. The medication Haldol was advertised with an image of an angry Black Man shaking a Black Power fist. The text of the advertisement asks, “Assaultive and belligerent?” and answers, “Cooperation often begins with Haldol.”

FBI profilers of the era, “spuriously diagnosed many pro-gun Black political leaders with militant forms of schizophrenia as a way of highlighting the ‘insanity of their political activism’.” Violent Blacks, Communists, and Muslims were also similarly described. Being Black, or being Black and violent, is now recognized as nothing related to the brain disease of schizophrenia; but in those violent decades, the concept received serious consideration. By 1968, several “articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry, such as one… titled Who Should Have a Gun? urged psychiatrists to address ‘the urgent social issue’ of firearms in response to ‘the threat of civil disorder.’ It was in that atmosphere that the U.S. Congress began serious debate about gun control legislation leading to the Gun Control Act of 1968.”

More recently history cultural politics underlie anxieties about whether guns and mental illness are understood to represent individual or communal etiologies. The responses of today’s politicians, FBI profilers, and psychiatric authors who argue for the “right to use mental health criteria to limit gun access, not just to severely mentally ill persons, but also to ‘drunkards,’ ‘drug users,’ and ‘political protesters’, has a widespread and strongly believed foundation stemming from the attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s.

A difference seen in the present day is the shift more promptly to the individual; the actions of lone White male shooters lead to calls from the NRA and other gun rights advocates to expand gun rights, focus on individual brains, or limit gun rights just for the severely mentally ill. The inordinate power of the NRA and of Tea Party politics makes it seem to be political suicide for a legislator or even a doctor or law enforcement officer to hint at restricting the gun rights for White Americans, private citizens, or men, even though these groups are the very ones most frequently linked to high-profile mass shootings. The other significant distinction between then and now is that “members of political groups such as the Tea Party who advocate broadening gun rights to guard against government tyranny—indeed the same claims made by Black Panther leaders in the 1960s—take seats in the U.S. Congress [and in local and state legislative bodies] rather than being subjected to psychiatric [and FBI] surveillance.”

Metzl and MacLeish, op cit in previous blogposts in this series discussed at length the argument by the NRA and other anti-gun-control advocates that gun control will not prevent the next mass shooting. Against the increasingly strident demands by the political left which takes as gospel, the idea that confiscation of guns will do away with the horrific shootings in the U.S. and will allow America once again to hold up its head among sensible and peaceable nations is “the mantra that gun control would not have prevented Newtown. That mantra is frequently cited by opponents of such efforts. This contention generally assumes that, because none of the recent mass shooters in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, or Isla Vista used weapons purchased through unregulated private sale or gun shows, gun control in itself would be ineffective at stopping gun crime, and that gun purchase restrictions or background checks are in any case rendered moot when shooters have mental illness.” Mayo Clinic psychiatrist J. Michael Bostwick, put it, “taking guns away from the mentally ill won’t eliminate mass shootings” unless such efforts are linked to larger prevention efforts that have a broader impact on communities.”

“Many scholars who study violence prevention hold that mass shootings occur too infrequently to allow for statistical modeling, and as such serve as poor jumping-off points for effective public health interventions. Moreover, the focus on individual crimes or the psychologies of individual shooters obfuscates attention to community-level everyday violence and the widespread symptoms produced by living in an environment engulfed by fear of guns and shootings.”

There are, in “the United States… an average of 32, 000 handgun-related deaths per year, and firearms are involved in 68% of homicides, 52% of suicides, 43% of robberies, and 21% of aggravated assaults… Everyday violence has a disproportionate impact on lower-income areas and communities of color, and is [now] widely held to be the cause of widespread anxiety disorders and traumatic stress symptoms; tensions of race and social class have an impact on the framing of the “insanity” of gun violence as [either] an individual or group problem.

The stark truth is that “a psychiatrist or other mental health professional is a class-based activity not available in many low-income neighborhoods, and that in any case the insanity of urban gun violence all too often reflects the larger madness of not investing more resources to support social and economic infrastructures.”

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