We do not have a unique mental illness problem with this country; other countries also have people who suffer from mental illness. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who supports the right to carry a gun at the cost to any other right. He seems to think that the problem of gun violence in the United States would best be solved by putting the mentally ill in institutions, a suggestion stuck in the 1950s. We are not alone in the world attempting more humane solutions to mental illness than institutionalization. Yes, we could do much more as a nation to help these people, but I seriously doubt that anyone who supports unrestricted gun ownership also supports an expansion of government spending on the type of health care programs needed to have a serious impact. At the same time, many of the people who have taken the airwaves in the weeks after Newtown to decry gun restrictions also oppose the types of background checks that would actually help to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Including suicides, guns were a factor in 30,000 American deaths last year. In cities like Philadelphia, eighty percent of the victims of gun violence are young men from minority groups. Obviously, not all of these people or their murderers are mentally ill. They’re the victims of rash decisions, poverty, distrust in the police to solve crimes and accord punishment. All of these are major problems that we should attempt to deal with as a nation. But other nations have these problems, too. There is poverty in Britain. Australians don’t particularly trust the police. But neither of these can access deadly firearms with the unique ease of Americans.
Despite the propaganda of gun advocates, we do not have a unique culture of violence in the media in the United States. All of Western Europe plays the same “Call of Duty” games that we do. British movies and television are just as violent as American. The same week as the tragic shootings in Newtown, a man walked into a Chinese school and attacked twenty innocent children. None of those children were killed. Had he been carrying a firearm instead, that likely would not have been the case.
In Australia, large group fistfights were an inevitable part of going out, a concept for which Middlebury had left me entirely unprepared. As intoxicated young men threw themselves at one another on the floor of the club, fists swinging, I felt infinitely safer knowing that neither party would pull out a gun to escalate the fight. Not every person who fires a gun in anger is mentally ill. Obviously, they are not thinking clearly in the heat of the moment. But that hardly makes them insane. It makes them human. When they have a gun, it’s all too easy for them to act quickly in anger, without considering the consequences.
Around the globe, humans feel anger, sadness, jealousy, and despair. These emotions are not limited to Americans. The reason that other countries don’t have our problem with mass murders and drive-by shootings is not that they don’t have these emotions, or that they miraculously treat all of their mentally ill. It’s not that they don’t have poverty. It’s not that they don’t like violent videos games. It’s that in other countries, these people do not have easy access to firearms. They keep them out of the hands of their mentally ill, out of inner cities, and out of bars. All of these are common sense steps that we would be criminally insane to not address.
There one more absolutely ridiculous argument that I’ve heard many times over the last few weeks that I just can’t leave alone. The government trying to reduce the number of guns in America from 300 million does not portend the rise of Hitler or Stalin, or any type of dictatorship. It’s called civilization. They day that I would start to actually become concerned about the rise of a dictatorial government is when the government starts calling on citizen gun activists to enforce its rules, co-opting them and earning their loyalty. That, not reductions on fire arm sales, has been a step that has accompanied the rise of totalitarianism. They day that they deputize the militias is the day to start getting scared. Until then, it’s time to acknowledge the absurd cost of our unique level of gun access and do something to change it.