Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Diversionary Tactic

Rita Rubin, in the new JAMA, discusses the relationship between mental health treatment and gun violence. Since we can't seem to get any policies implemented that will actually reduce gun violence, it's fashionable for politicians to use the problem as an argument for improving accessibility of behavioral health services.

I am reluctant to be contrarian about this because I'm all for getting people the help they need. However, this is an excellent example of the way cognitive biases distort our politics. While it is true that mass shooters -- like the perpetrators of the attack on Gabby Giffords and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre -- are disproportionately likely to be seriously mentally ill, such mass killings are a minuscule proportion of all gun violence.

And of course, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not dangerous -- they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. And psychiatrists just have no way of predicting who is going to commit violence. So the argument that mental illness is a modifiable cause of gun violence just stigmatizes people who have enough problems already. The real point is to divert attention from what we can do effectively to limit gun violence -- much of which, by the way, is either suicide or what you might call accidental or might not.

After a mass murder in Australia in 1996, that country imposed much more restrictive gun laws. They banned some semi-automatic weapons altogether, and required people to get a firearms license and to show a good reason -- not just "self-defense" -- why they needed to own a gun. They bought back 700,000 weapons which were no longer legal. Since then, the incidence of gun violence in that country has fallen substantially, and there hasn't been a single mass killing. And the Australians do not live under tyranny.

So let's not surrender to this diversionary tactic. Yes, let's fix our mental health delivery and payment system. But don't pretend that will do anything to solve the gun violence problem.

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