Gun Culture and Liberal Ableism

Donald Trump is a man who has become “Presidential” because he gave a speech without screaming. He is a man who eats his steak the wrong way, inspiring ridiculous think pieces on the subject. His Attorney General committed perjury about his communications with a foreign government. But among liberals, the Trump story du jour is a repeal of a regulation against selling guns to the mentally ill. On this subject, they slip outside of gun control and into something more bipartisan. They slip into painting the mentally ill as dangerous monsters.

The responses I’ve seen to this news from liberals range from “Wow, mentally ill people should not have guns” to “This is horrible and people will die because of it” to “Clearly Trump wanted to repeal this law because he wants to buy a gun.” I would hope the ableism contained in that latter sentiment is obvious, so I’ll stick to the former.

Immutable Gun Culture

First, let me say this: Gun culture is a part of large portions of American society. Boatloads of people will see a policy that bans firearm ownership for a vaguely defined group of “mentally ill” and refuse to seek treatment. That’s how important guns are to a significant number of Americans.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into what’s behind this opposition to the mentally ill owning guns.

What we see, and what we miss

Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, there is the standard pundit debate. “Regulate the sale of guns” vs “Laws wouldn’t have stopped this!” It’s more or less a script at this point. After the standard arguments are made, both camps settle on some variation of “We need better services for the mentally ill.” It’s a point of consensus, and yet the improvement in services never materializes. Throwing our hands up and saying “Mental illness” is a subtle but insidious form of ableism. It paints the mentally ill as not only dangerous and violent but The Only People Who Could Do This.

The first implication in talking about mental illness in the context of a shooting is assuming the shooter is mentally ill. Most of these proclamations come before the shooter has a professional evaluation. Often the professionals conclude that the shooter doesn’t have a violent mental illness. The Charleston shooter went out of his way to stress to the jury that he did not suffer from any form of mental illness. Rather, he became radicalized by a violent white nationalist ideology. Attributing mental illness to shooters furthers the stigma against mental illness. Doing so associates the shooter with the other 42.5 million Americans who suffer from mental illness. Not only that, it also sweeps the true motivations of the shooter under the rug. In the case of the Charleston shooter, that’s an ideology of violence and hatred. This ideology is flourishing in online communities. Rather than focus on the ideology, people attribute the violence to mental illness. They do this based only on the armchair analysis that “anyone who would do this is sick.” In so doing, they miss the chance to, for example, condemn racism. The narrative becomes “the shooter says he deserves the death penalty — he’s probably mentally ill.” This misses the truth: The shooter is seeking the death penalty to become a martyr for a racist cause.

The second thing that’s implied is a more subtle guilt by association. If mental illness is what caused a shooter to do this, that means mental illness is dangerous. That means that mentally ill people are dangerous. Dangerous enough for a President whose gun control priorities are unable to pass through Congress to scapegoat them. Meanwhile, it still looks to the President’s base as if he did something meaningful.

But not everyone should have a gun!

Before anyone accuses me of being an NRA shill who wants to go to an inpatient facility and pass out Glocks, I should clarify. There are some people who shouldn’t have weapons of any kind. But it’s interesting to me that the discourse surrounding this repeal centers on schizophrenics with a history of violence.

The Obama rule didn’t prevent delusional schizophrenics from buying a gun. It prohibited selling guns to people incapable of managing their financial affairs. That determination is made by the Social Security Administration. The rule was a practice of blanket discrimination. It barred gun ownership based on an unrelated factor. People affected would then have to prove to Social Security that they weren’t dangerous. Even left-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union urged Congress to repeal the rule.

Let’s assume, though, that this was a bill barring schizophrenics from owning guns. This would be on the basis that it’s a particular type of mental illness associated with higher rates of violence. At the risk of sounding like a slippery slope fallacy — why stop there? What about post-traumatic stress disorder, which can also manifest in violent ways? What about clinical depression — guns can be used for suicide, too, after all. (In fact, almost two-thirds of firearm-related deaths are suicides.) Once we’ve established a norm of limiting access based on mental illness, it becomes easier to limit access based on more insidious means. Gender dysphoria is listed in the DSM-V, for example. If you think right-wingers are above painting trans people as dangerous, I’d encourage you to look at the rhetoric surrounding restroom access.

It’s clear what happened here. Liberals accepted the low-hanging fruit of discrimination against the mentally ill. In exchange, they furthered gun control, which was a pet issue for them at that moment in time. Now that Congress is rolling the regulation back, it’s another point to oppose Trump — never mind the implicit ableism, we’ve got a bigot to stop!