It seems as though every time yet another person goes on a killing spree, reporters and the population at large feel the need to assume that he is “mentally ill,” and encourage policies that further decimate the rights of people labeled with psychosocial disabilities, but is violence truly caused by “mental illness?” There is, truly, only one universal factor among mass killers- an incredible lack of empathy. Most of these individuals have a serious grievance with someone that, sometimes, is quite legitimate (ie. having been bullied) and sometimes, is overblown (ie. having been turned down when seeking sexual activity) and decide to exact revenge on an entire population that, in some way, represents the individual(s) who they feel wronged them. They want their grievances addressed, and believe that the only way to achieve this is with an act of horrific, large-scale violence.
Some of these individuals may struggle with mental health challenges and/or trauma histories, but given that a significant percentage are taking or withdrawing from psychotropic drugs at the time of their crimes, blaming “untreated mental illness” seems ridiculous, and any suggestion that more drugs and more force in mental health will curb mass shootings should be effectively offset by the fact that violent thoughts or impulses are a known side effect of many of the drugs these young men were prescribed. If we take the focus off baseless theories that they’re “crazy and need to be medicated,” and realize that nearly all of these killers had (a) suffered from some sort of injustice or trauma (or perception thereof), (b) want justice and for their grievances to be addressed, (c) lack the empathy to care about all those who never harmed them who will lose their lives or lose their loved ones due to their actions, and (d) have access to or the ability to obtain deadly weapons, we might actually get somewhere. Even if we threw the Constitution out the window and confiscated and destroyed all legally-obtained firearms tomorrow, it could still take quite a long time to gain any level of control over the illegal firearms market. Non-discriminatory policies that limit access to firearms could certainly make a significant impact on the prevalence of such crimes, but will not, on their own, stop mass shootings.
We hear a lot about “common sense policies” regarding gun violence, so I’d like to offer a few of my own. What if we worked to curb the tide of abuse and injustice that plagues children and young adults? What if, every time a child said that he was being bullied at school, school officials made their absolute, first priority to ensure that child’s future safety while on school grounds, and gave him the opportunity to talk openly about what he experienced? What if we reached out to every young person who seemed isolated or distressed and offered friendship, openness, and a listening ear? What if we treated our young, vulnerable citizens with so much empathy and kindness that they couldn’t help but learn to treat their fellow citizens the same way? What if we taught our children about empathy with as much fervor as we use to teach them about math and science? What if we respected children, teens and young adults as full and equal citizens in need of guidance, and not the property of guardians who may be loving, terribly abusive, or anything in between?
It is certainly difficult to legislate empathy, and politicians are certainly under tremendous pressure to “do something this time” after every mass murder. However, the difficulty involved in making these changes does not justify failing to even try. It also doesn’t justify the tide of increasingly draconian policies aimed at curbing the rights of those presumed to have a “mental illness” under the discredited assumption that such individuals are more likely to be violent. The fact that quite a few recent mass shooters had received a psychiatric label justifies limiting the rights of people with psychiatric labels about as much as the fact that the majority of US mass shooters were young, white men justifies limiting the rights of young, white men. We supposedly live in a country that values the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” However, people labeled with psychosocial disabilities already live under a uniquely authoritarian, preventative detention regime, in which they can be immediately incarcerated in a mental health facility with little recourse if anyone accuses them of being a “danger to themselves or others,” or, all too often, only because their behavior is judged to be erratic or strange. The overwhelming majority of the time, a label of “dangerously mentally ill” is applied not to individuals who are homicidal, but to those who are (or are accused of being) suicidal and pose no danger to society. When we acknowledge that injustice is inherent in this system and is virtually universal in the lives of mass murderers, our true goal should be to create a more just system and a more just society to ease the distress that, in an incredible minority of cases, can be a factor that leads to mass murder.
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