Editor’s Note: An updated of this post was published on March 6, 2017, entitled “The Balancing Act Between Mental Illness and Gun Rights.”
By Mariam Ahmed, JD/MSPP (2016)
In recent years, there have been a multitude of state- and federal-level discussions about how to use law to minimize gun violence as active shooter events increase. During these deliberations, one point that has repeatedly been debated is whether people with mental illness should have their gun possession rights limited.
Here’s how the legal landscape currently looks.
Federal law currently restricts the possession of firearms for people who are “adjudicated a mental defective.” In 1993, the law was expanded by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to not only restrict firearm possession, but allow for the reporting of people with mental illness to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Now, the Safer Communities Act of 2015 is a bill that was introduced in the House on July 9th of 2015. If the bill is passed, “adjudicated mentally ill” will be further clarified to mean people who have been committed to either inpatient or outpatient treatment. It will also restrict a person with mental illness from possessing a firearm for at least one year after he or she has been released from commitment.
Supporters of tighter gun control laws in relation to mental health patients argue the restrictions make the community safer. A study conducted by Jeffery Swanson, PhD, shows that mental illness diagnoses increase the likelihood of violent behavior, though only approximately 4% of all violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness (Read Swanson’s three-part series on this blog from 2012). Many gun restriction advocates cite these studies, as well as recent instances of mass shootings, to argue gun possession rights should be restricted for people with mental illness. National Rifle Association executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, supported restricting gun possession rights of people with mental illness in the belief that it would decrease gun violence.
Mental illness advocates oppose tighter restrictions on people with mental illness because the restrictions could deter people from getting help for their mental illness. Health professionals believe the gun restrictions for people with mental illness increased the stigma associated with mental illnesses and prevented people from seeking help. This may further the problem of gun violence since the treatment of mental illness has been shown to lower the rate of violence.
Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia have laws that can limit the possession of firearms for people committed to involuntary outpatient commitment. Five of those states rely on the interpretation of the federal law to determine whether people receiving outpatient commitment are also restricted. Therefore, if the Safer Communities Act of 2015 bill is passed, the restrictions on outpatients will be more uniform in these states. How that will affect the mental health system, though, is still up for debate.
Mariam Ahmed is a third-year Law and Public Policy student at Drexel University. She was a 2015 summer intern for the Temple University Policy Surveillance Program.