Watch Your Mouth: The Use of Language in Gun Control Debates

Just a few days after the addition of the Boston Marathon bombing as another wound in an ongoing tale of public violence in the United States, and following the recent defeat in Congress of a proposed expansion of background checks for gun transactions, President Obama is now focusing his efforts on enforcing executive actions requiring state agencies to release mental health records to the FBI. Federal law currently prevents individuals diagnosed with certain mental health issues to purchase firearms; the FBI uses information provided by states in order to enforce this legislation.  Prior to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, states voluntarily provided these records.  However, following the incident, new legislation was passed requiring states to provide the information or face significant cuts to criminal justice funding. Recently, the Obama administration, under executive order, began working to remove other barriers that might prevent states from releasing mental health records to the FBI.

 

Interestingly enough, this tune is quite different than that of only a couple of weeks ago, when, it was reported that Senate lawmakers were working quietly to develop legislation that would bring about comprehensive mental healthcare reform.  The legislation would provide more funding and development in the mental health care sector across the country, increasing the number of health care facilities, providing early intervention training, and increase Medicaid allotments for mental health care.  While lawmakers and mental health care lobbyists initially attempted to quietly distance the mental health legislation from discussions about gun control, recent events have made the connection inevitable.

 

Such a scenario begs larger questions about the language used in media reporting about mental health and violence, especially in the current popular dialogue over gun control reform in the wake of increasingly frequent mass shootings.  If one were to read through the headlines published about the spree killers involved in the shootings in Aurora, Tucson, or Newtown, one would read scores of connections between the acts of violence and allegations of mental illness or instability.  In fact, according to Ronald Honberg, the director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, none of these individuals have ever been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue, at least not to our knowledge.  Yet, in the wake of these shootings, the discussion about gun control centered directly on issues of mental health, reflecting subconscious societal connections between violence and mental health.

 

However, the truth is that, although many people assume that mental illness commonly precipitates violence, the annual incidence of violent crimes against people with serious mental illnesses is more than four times higher than in the general population (Teplin, et al. 2005).  If we are going to have a national conversation about mental health, then this aspect has to be included in it.  However, the current stigmas present in the media, political discourse, and social conversation short circuit the potential productivity of a mental health conversation by reducing the impact of mental health to acts of violence, a connection that is not backed up by the facts themselves.

 

A public conversation about increasing resources for addressing mental health is essential in our national health climate, especially when approximately 47% of Americans will have a diagnosable disorder within their lifetime (according to the DSM-5).  However, as we pursue this conversation, we must be extremely careful about the ways in which we conflate mental health and violence.  The language we use and the connections we draw matter immensely for our abilities to care for such a significant and valuable population in our society.

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