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America’s unique and tragic mix of guns and mental illness

In 2008, Vince Li, a mentally ill man on a bus passing through Manitoba committed an unspeakable crime. He heard voices, thought the man sleeping next to him was an Alien, and so attacked and beheaded Tim McLean who was on his way home to Winnipeg.

Li was an untreated schizophrenic suffering from paranoid delusions. Most schizophrenics with paranoid delusions are not homicidal, but a few are. When those few have access to a weapon, they can pose a risk to themselves and others (and the reason we have involuntary psychiatric holds). When they have a semi-automatic weapon they can kill 8, 10, 12, or 33. Or more.

Schizophrenics can plan these homicides. The decent into madness is a tortuous path and many are lucid enough at intervals or have learned how to conceal their plans (remember, they are often paranoid). Sometimes there are signs, but many with this kind of mental illness are so medically and socially disenfranchised that no one notices the gravity of the problem or no one cares to notice.

The shootings in Virginia Tech (2007, 33 dead), Tucson (2011, 6 dead), Aurora (2012, 12 dead) Sandy Hook (2012, 28 dead) and now Washington Navy Yard (2013, 13 dead) share a commonality with what happened in Winnipeg in 2008: unspeakable crimes committed by inadequately treated mentally ill men. Since they murdered, I think it’s fair to say inadequately treated mental illness.

Treating mental illness adequately, even with universal health care is a challenge. I’ll wager percentage wise there are similar numbers of inadequately treated schizophrenics, people with depression and homicidal ideation, and people with psychotic breaks in Canada as there are in the U.S. However, access to guns is more difficult and also guns are far less a part of the culture of violence.

If Li had a gun on that bus in Winnipeg in 2008 it is likely many more would have died. If those mentally ill shooters in the U.S. had been armed with knives fewer people would have died.

The world will always have people who descend into extreme mental illness, it’s just in countries without ready access to guns the collateral damage from a psychotic break (or whatever voices and thoughts drive a mentally ill man to resort to horrific violence) is so much less.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “America’s unique and tragic mix of guns and mental illness

  1. I agree 100% and just can’t wait for the dissenting views to come pouring in…

    Posted by Kathy Nieder MD | September 19, 2013, 6:40 pm
  2. Sadly, gun violence is a symptom- not the true cause. Sound guns be banned, it is equally possible that similarly disturbed young people (mostly men) will turn to explosives to make their point instead. And as we saw in Boston, all it took was common hardware store chemicals and a pressure cooker to injure hundreds (dozens would have died, but for the five Level I trauma centers and half of Boston EMS at the scene). We need better mental health services- the cops should have been able to take that person straight to a hospital. But guns are only a symptom, and banning them will accomplish nothing.

    Posted by VKA | September 20, 2013, 3:51 pm
    • Then why don’t random mass-killings, American-style, happen anywhere else with such terrible regularity, with or without guns?

      Australians don’t run amok with fertiliser bombs, British men don’t go on crossbow rampages.

      Guns are the problem, even if you don’t like that fact. They’re portable, easy to conceal, freely available, cheap to use, and can be operated with no prior planning, entirely on impulse. Building bombs takes planning and know-how, precision is necessary, as is stealth, to avoid detection. A gun? Pull it out of your pocket and fire away, soaked in the knowledge that a country that glorifies violence and reasons will perform backflips to insist that your boomstick was not to blame, that they will bend themselves into pretzels of twisted logic to defend your right to shoot people, thus ensuring that your actions will be repeated ad infinitum, while your countrymen wring their hands and pretend that they don’t understand what happened.

      Posted by neverdefiled | September 25, 2013, 7:48 am
  3. Totally agree! I don’t know if you saw the article on Think Progress, but Americans tend to blame mental health above gun laws, and we really just end up shaming people with mental health problems.

    Posted by erinjayne | September 20, 2013, 8:34 pm
  4. CDC study ordered by Obama that shows no evidence that any form of gun control reduces violent crime: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5214a2.htm

    FBI statistics on violent crime that show a marked decrease of violent crime over time, during a period where private gun ownership rates increased by a great margin.
    http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_01.html

    Concise article by female former gun-control advocate:
    https://www.gunowners.org/wv06.htm

    Another of the same:
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/political-bookworm/2010/10/women_with_guns.html

    And I hate to use Wikipedia as a source, but there are hundreds of cited sources at the end of the entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States#Self-protection

    So two objective, two subjective, and one crowd-sourced resource for you and your followers’ reading pleasure.
    I’ll also point out a few salient facts:

    During the L.A. riots, Korean store owners defended their lives and property with rifles, pistols, and ‘assault rifles’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgCiC6qTtjs

    Private gun ownership rights are women’s rights too. Numbers vary on this one because of the lack of official reports available. It’s estimated that a sexual assault occurs once every two minutes in the US. Every two minutes, someone attempts to rape someone else, probably a woman. More than half of all sexual assaults go unreported, and it’s estimated that only 1 in 10 rapes are actually reported for various reasons from shame to lack of proof to shock. Only 3% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail, and that’s after an average of 15 victims. Those numbers would drastically change if more women were armed (and they have been changing according to the FBI, whose stats are available above). It’s estimated that anywhere from ~600 to ~3500 rapes a DAY are either fought off or avoided altogether because of the presence of a gun or the fear of a gun.

    Then we can point to statistics that show that in places where gun control is most strict, violent crime remains high or has increased. Washington DC spent a long time as the ‘Murder Capital of the World’. Now it’s Chicago’s turn. NYC and LA have also struggled to control their rampant crime rates. But in places like Orlando, where 1 in 10 adults have a concealed carry permit, the crime rate outside of poverty-stricken areas has dropped to almost nil, and the rape rate (outside of college campuses, where guns are banned) has dropped drastically.

    And finally, directly to your point of mass homicides. First of all, mass shootings grab headlines and garner much more attention than any other crimes. But they account for less than 1% of 1% of all violent crime per year. Secondly, the average number of people killed in a mass shooting that’s stopped by the police: 14.3. Average number of people killed in a mass shooting stopped by an armed citizen: 2.3.

    This doesn’t even begin to point out that big pharmaceutical companies, in a bid to make more money over the course of a person’s entire life, pushed to change the definitions of several mental disorders so they could give mind-altering drugs to small children and keep them on the drugs their entire lives, leading to real mental imbalances. And also that every single mass shooting in the last two decades has been perpetrated by someone on a mind-altering drug. Makes you think.

    All of this is to illustrate a point: Guns in the hands of good people do so much more good than guns in the hands of bad people. Even if you could successfully take guns out of the hands of everyone so that no bad people had them, you would also be divesting the good people of the benefits and rights they would have with a gun in their hands. The good you would destroy vastly outweighs the bad you would destroy. And that’s in a fantasy world. In the real world, criminals by definition do not obey laws. So any law designed to disarm people would only disarm law-abiding citizens, and create criminals out of formerly law-abiding citizens… neither of which would do anything about the bad people. The better option? Arm ALL of the good people, and let them sort out the bad ones much more efficiently than the police ever could. There’s only an average of one law enforcement officer per 100,000 people. But put guns in the hands of responsible citizens, and it’s a criminal’s nightmare.

    Posted by Compeador | October 16, 2013, 8:54 am

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