Guns and mental health (and data!)

A very, very smart friend of mine (and accomplished social scientist) wrote on FB this evening:

Today’s testable hypotheses

1. The pro-gun lobby tells the causal story of “mental illness” as a way to explain the Newtown shooting. It’s not an unsound argument, and it’s clearly a form of “sense making,” but it does tend to shift the debate away from guns–which are more efficient at killing than knives–to a debate about mental health.

2. If we accept that (a) most gun proponents are political conservatives, (b) most political conservatives do not trust science, particularly social and behavioral science, and (c) most political conservatives oppose public financing or new regulatory regimes that would provide more mental health services, then we can assume that, while gun advocates believe the cause of mass violence is unchecked mental illness, most of these advocates oppose the provision of public health services outside the inadequate system of private insurance (which, even then, is notoriously poor at providing services and access to services).

Bottom line: the mental health theme may be simply a rhetorical tactic to change the terms of the debate. How to test thes hypotheses? Survey data on gun attitudes and attitudes toward public mental health services. Next step: see if such data exist. (General Social Survey, maybe?)

Well, that’s just baiting me to put off doing the dishes and settling down with whatever is on HBO.  I’ve got all the GSS datasets on my school computer, but you can run handy crosstabs with a great website.  So, here’s some handy crosstabs that show– not at all surprisingly– those opposed to gun permits 1) are more opposed to government spending on mental health; and 2) also more opposed to the government being responsible for caring for those with mental illness.

First, government responsibility:




And government spending:





Null hypothesis rejected.  Can say with considerable confidence that even though the gun rights supporters would like to blame our mental health system– not our gun laws and gun culture– they are decidedly less interested in funding that mental health system.


On being Adam Lanza’s mom

Already read all sorts of things about Adam Lanza’s mom.  Clearly, she liked her guns and was a private person, but it is so easy to try and blame her for raising a monster.  In all honesty, she was probably doing everything she could to try and help her son.  Fabulous, fabulous essay by a woman raising a seriously mentally ill 13-year old.  Here’s a snippet:

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.
“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”
“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”…
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me…
I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
Now read the whole thing.  The upshot– oh, so little mental resources to help him or his mom.

The indictment

New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik with the strongest indictment of the gun lobby (and all the supportive gun-nuts) I have read:

After the mass gun murders at Virginia Tech, I wrote about the unfathomable image of cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead kids, and of the parents trying desperately to reach them. And I said (as did many others), This will go on, if no one stops it, in this manner and to this degree in this country alone—alone among all the industrialized, wealthy, and so-called civilized countries in the world. There would be another, for certain…

After the Aurora killings, I did a few debates with advocates for the child-killing lobby—sorry, the gun lobby—and, without exception and with a mad vehemence, they told the same old lies: it doesn’t happen here more often than elsewhere (yes, it does); more people are protected by guns than killed by them (no, they aren’t—that’s a flat-out fabrication); guns don’t kill people, people do; and all the other perverted lies that people who can only be called knowing accessories to murder continue to repeat, people who are in their own way every bit as twisted and crazy as the killers whom they defend. (That they are often the same people who pretend outrage at the loss of a single embryo only makes the craziness still crazier.)…

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. [emphasis mine]  Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

All of that is a truth, plain and simple, and recognized throughout the world. At some point, this truth may become so bloody obvious that we will know it, too. Meanwhile, congratulate yourself on living in the child-gun-massacre capital of the known universe.

I’ve long been disturbed by our gun culture, seen it as completely obvious that our current policies our a total failure, and been aware of the explicit moral cost-benefit Gopnik so brilliantly elucidates.  But I’ve always been fatalistic and pessimistic about improving things.  But I’ve never been this damn mad and outraged before.  And I get the feeling I’m far from alone in this.  If you read this blog, you know I am passionate about health care policy and economic policy.  I think I just became passionate about gun policy, too.  I desperately hope there’s a lot more people out there like me and we can start to make a difference and maybe save some lives.

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