DISCLAIMER: I realize that by writing this, I will be upsetting a lot of people. Namely the millions of members in the NRA (including some really, really dear and loved friends and family). I realize that there is no way that I could possibly do this topic justice, as I am not a psychologist or politician.
That being said, there is no way in hell that I am not going to let my voice be heard.
I grew up in a 2nd Amendment household. I knew how to shoot a BB gun by the time I was twelve. We would shoot empty dog food cans propped up in a stack on an old tree stump in the backyard -- me, my younger brother, our friends and our dads. I didn't think of it as violent. I thought of it as fun. Around the time I was in high school, my father applied for a gun permit. I remember sitting in the living room while my mother talked to a state agent on the phone as she reassured them that no, she was not in danger of violence from my father nor was he in danger of violence from her. This was enough to get the permit, and the gun safe in our guest room closet became the safe for the rest of the important documents our family held: birth certificates, high school and college diplomas, passports. By the time I was 20, my father had taken me to a shooting range where I practiced from 15 yards distance shooting a human shaped target in the heart with a 9mm semi-automatic. It made me feel like a secret agent in training.
This is enough to shock most if not all of those who call for gun reform, I know. And while the far-left, middle-left, and just-left-of-center may be very vocal about their requests for gun regulation, the fact is that the U.S. comprises around 5% of the world population but owns about 42% of the civilian-issued guns (1 & 3). That's at least what a study said in 2007. More recently, there are around 40 million more guns in the U.S. than there are people (3). Just to put that in perspective for you, in Ireland (God bless the Irish) there are about .4m more sheep than there are people (4). Yes, you read me right. There are more guns than people in America, while other countries are merely outnumbered by their livestock.
But there is no way for me to tell my story without acknowledging the fact that none of this was deemed strange for me and I didn't think twice about any of it. More important still: I never once thought of hurting myself or anyone else with the weapons in my house. And that's coming from someone with serious chronic depression for over a decade.
The Gun Violence Archive defines mass shootings as any act of gun violence that injures or kills more than four people in a single incident, not including the shooter (1). With that definition, it has been determined that a mass shooting in America occurs 9 out of 10 days on average. (HELLO PEOPLE! THIS IS HAPPENING TO US!) And I would venture that 9 out of 10 times, the perpetrator is deemed "crazy," "mentally insane," and "nuts," to use the words of NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch (1 & 3). Even President Trump -- yes, our president, whether you voted for him or not -- insisted that the antagonist of the Parkland shootings was "mentally disturbed," "crazy," and "sick" (2).
In fact, nearly a quarter of stories about mass shootings paint the perpetrator as mentally ill (3). Furthermore, over half of news stories that feature mental illness mention violence (3). Frequently, the perspective is this: the mentally ill are those that society must be protected against. So it's no wonder that 57% of Americans, when questioned, will attest that a lack of mental health care is responsible for mass shootings (3) -- this, as opposed to, say, gun regulation (3)?
Here's the point in this post where I drop a truth bomb: only 15% of U.S. mass shootings between 1966 and 2015 are carried out by individuals suffering from mental illness (3). In fact, mentally ill individuals affect less than 1% of gun-related homicides annually (3). To put it in perspective, if the violence attributed to those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression were to poof! disappear overnight, the violence in America (excluding suicides) would only drop 4% (1). Even more shocking, people who suffer from mental illness are ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime, whether by civilian or police (2). "Police?" you may ask. Yes, police. A 2016 report from the Ruderman Family Foundation disclosed that at least 25% of people shot by police have a mental illness or disability (1). But that is a story for another post...
For this post, let's get around to the fact that mentally ill individuals (like yours truly) are a serious threat to their own safety rather than to the public (2). A 2016 study comprised of 82,000 patients diagnosed with serious mental illness between 2002 and 2011 reported that these patients were no more likely to hurt another individual than the general public (1). Throughout the course of the study, 254 patients died of suicide and 50 of these late patients used a gun (1). In fact, 2/3 of American gun deaths are suicides. That's because people with a gun in their home are three times likelier to die by suicide than those without (3). A truly fatal suicide attempt is only possible when there is a concrete and effective way to end one's life within grasp. If this all sounds too hypothetical for you, let's look at it this way: only 2-3% of suicide attempts by poisoning are lethal, while 85% of all attempts with a firearm are successful (3). Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke (go Terps) University professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences in addition to being a sociologist and psychiatric epidemiologist, succinctly said in an interview, "The danger of the mentally ill having access to firearms is not what they will do to society, but rather what they will do to themselves" (1).
Because, when you get down to it, approximately 45 million people in the United States meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition, or around 1 in 5 individuals (1 & 3). And according to Julie Cerel, president of the American Association of Suicidology, more than half of grown adults in the United States know someone who has died of suicide (3). Each death usually affects around 150 individuals (3).
"I think a primary myth is that 'if someone wants to kill themselves, there is nothing you can do to stop them," Cerel stated in an interview, "This is typically untrue. Most people's suicidal crises are short term. If they are given help and support through it and are kept away from lethal means, they often will not die" (3).
You may laugh but my favorite statement on this issue was done in an op-ed piece for Teen Vogue: "Not only is there a huge difference between mental illness and other risk factors such as unmanaged anger or childhood trauma, but it is vital that we distigmatize treatment for these problems because it is only by getting help that sufferers can better manage and understand their emotions and psychological needs" (1).
Because what all of my ranting and raving and research comes down to is this: we need to change the rhetoric surrounding these tragedies so that more people do not become isolated. Right now, the way things stand, I wouldn't be surprised if those of us who are "neurodivergent" (my favorite new term) are afraid to come forward. And why wouldn't we be? Those in political power view us as "monsters" and "crazy." Okay, I am crazy, I'll give you that one. But I never -- not for a single moment -- thought about harming myself with a gun and I certainly never thought about harming others.
So today, I got up and out the door with some friends and went to the March For Our Lives at the U.S. Embassy in London. Most people -- dare I say all -- were there to argue for gun reform to stop the tragedies from happening to more students and children. And yes, I agree that that needs to happen. But I also think that there is something more insidious that underlies all of these conversations. And that is the demonization of those with mental illness. I marched today, but I marched for my own reasons. I marched for all those who feel like they are being monsterized by a society so hellbent on sticking to their democratic and individualistic roots that they are reluctant to hand over a weapon that (may or may not) fall into the wrong hands. I marched for myself and I marched for 20% of the U.S. population. I marched to stop the silencing of those who turn the gun on themselves. I marched to say enough.
Too long, didn't read? Here's the gist: think twice before demonizing those suffering from mental illness. We may be crazy -- hell, I kind of think it makes life interesting -- but we by no means are going to hurt you (studies have proven it). So have a little compassion next time you talk about protecting your guns and your children, both sides of the aisle.