The terms “mental health” and “mental illness” are getting thrown around a lot these days, and for the worst possible reasons. So it’s worth reiterating that mass shooter disorder isn’t something with which one can be diagnosed by any reputable doctor.
To be sure, massacring innocent people is not something that normal, happy, well-adjusted people do. It’s also not something that mentally ill people do on anything approaching a regular basis.
In fact, it’s not something hardly anybody does. If we define mass shootings as those claiming at least three lives, there have been eight such atrocities so far this year in the United States with a total of 59 fatalities and 76 injuries, according to a Mother Jones database.
That’s far too many, of course. But eight deranged gunmen constitute about .000002% — that’s two millionths of a percent — of the U.S. population.
It’s not even a measurable percentage of the 11.2 million people in the United States who experience a serious mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s a pretty meaningless factoid, though, because most mass shooters don’t have diagnosed mental illnesses.
Again, that doesn’t mean the shooters were “right in the head” when they committed acts of violence that almost every single one of us would consider unthinkable.
But lumping them together with the millions of Americans who struggle daily with depression, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and any number of serious, sometimes life-threatening illnesses is not just misleading; it’s dangerous.
Statistically, people with mental illness are vastly more likely to be a threat to themselves than to anyone else. And that risk — not the risk of mass shootings or homicide — is the biggest reason why so-called “red flag” laws make sense.
Most red flag laws allow police to temporarily take guns away from the homes of people who are deemed a threat to themselves or to others after a court order. In most states, law enforcement officers or family members can request the order.
That’s not a particularly significant expansion of police authority. In South Carolina, a person can already be admitted involuntarily to an in-patient psychiatric facility during a medical emergency without a court order. Only longer stays require a probate judge to sign off.
A red flag law wouldn’t make that process much different. It wouldn’t allow police to arrest or take into emergency treatment anyone they don’t already have the power to arrest or take into emergency treatment.
But it would allow a temporary seizure of guns and a prohibition on buying new ones, which is currently only possible under relatively extreme circumstances in South Carolina — an adjudicated mental illness (which is a different, more complex process), domestic violence or a felony conviction, for example.
For his or her own safety, a person who has recently experienced a mental health crisis should not have easy access to deadly weapons. Guns are involved in significantly more deaths by suicide — about 22,000 per year in the United States — than homicide.
There are other methods of suicide, to be sure, but they are far less effective on average, with guns fatal in about 83% of attempts compared to about 30% for all other means, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study.
There’s some evidence to suggest that red flag laws might have stopped some recent shootings. That would obviously be a welcome result.
States that implemented such laws have seen measurable drops in firearm suicides. And based purely on numbers, that’s a much more significant public health and safety benefit.
People with mental illness are almost never dangerous to society, and they’re even less likely to be terrorists. But mental illness, especially when combined with the prevalence of guns in America, is a far deadlier threat than mass shootings.
And that’s where red flag laws have the most potential to save lives.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.