LEWISTON — Outrage over deaths caused by mass shootings invade the public consciousness like the tide, ebbing and flowing it seems with increasing regularity. So regularly that we may almost be able to predict the next shooting with grotesque certainty. In order to prevent them in Maine we have moved in this state to draft legislation designed to protect the innocent from the violent.

In June, Gov. Mills signed into law L.D. 1811, which is a compromise to the so called “Red Flag” law initially proposed in Maine. L.D. 1811 allows law enforcement officers to remove firearms from the custody of individuals deemed to be “ a danger to themselves or others.” This seems sensible. The compromise negotiations centered around due process concerns, and the question of whether individual’s rights were sufficiently protected under this law. This is also a sensible concern when drafting good law.

What bothers me is what seems to be a regression in our language as we discuss “Red Flag” laws and gun violence in general. There seems to be an increase in language that conflates “violence” with mental illness.

There has been decades of awareness building in attitudes towards mental illness. Gone are the days, not really that long ago, when the idea of “mentally ill” conjured up the trope of violent inmates wrapped in straitjackets, drooling against the dirty tile walls of an insane asylum. But now, the needle is moving back with comments like:

“Far too often, police are forced to deal with the deadly interaction of guns and mental illness.” is a quote that opened a local news report about red flag laws recently here in Maine.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins has “long supported closing loopholes in background checks to prevent the sale of firearms to criminals and individuals with serious mental illness.”

Donald Trump has called mass shooters “Mentally ill monsters” after the recent shootings.

On the part of both individual rights activists and gun control activists there seems to be a compromise that leads in common speech to areturn partially to that old trope.

Gun rights activists can’t really admit that guns used for violence should be taken away. That is what guns are for, after all. Whether, hunting, or self defense or having a sense of power on the firing range, guns are designed to be violent. Ah, but guns used for violence for the wrong reasons; yes, we can get behind that. If the person with the gun is mentally ill, we should take it away.

Gun control activists jump at the chance to remove guns from the violent. But at what cost? At the cost of conflating “violent individual” with “mentally ill individual.”

It embarrasses me to think how quickly we can return to those days of easy stereotypes of the mentally ill. when we look to the causes of the increasingly high profile deaths in our country and see the mentally ill in our minds eye.

Those suffering from mental illness can be violent; 3 percent  to 5 percent of violent crimes can be attributed to those living with a serious mental illness. Who are the aggressors in the remaining 95 percent of crimes? Not those living with a diagnosis. In fact, those suffering from severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the VICTIMS of a violent assault than the aggressor.

Part of the problem may be the expanding definition of “mentally ill.” Generations ago, insane asylums may have held only those with the most severe diagnoses; today we may call them psychoses. Mental illness today however refers to a broader spectrum of disorders, including at times milder conditions that would not, and should not rise to the level of institutionalizing treatments. Let’s not drag the solutions and stereotypes from the past to include the new meanings we have ascribed to “mentally ill” today.

We should not let our outrage get the better of us and lead us to find an innocent scapegoat to pay for the crimes of others.

Mental illness has been stigmatized for generations. We should find ways of solving gun violence that doesn’t stigmatize those with mental illness.

— Special to the Press Herald


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