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Gun Violence & the Mental Health Scapegoat

by Anu Sawhney

Photography courtesy of #NeverAgain Facebook

In the wake of a heinous mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, where 17 lives were ended when the assailant used a semi-automatic rifle to deliver lethal, high-velocity bullets to the victims, I've found myself feeling utterly lost amidst rhetoric that somehow tries to shift the narrative anywhere but to the weapon of choice.

It's helpful here to point out the profound power and influence of the students and teen activists of the #NeverAgain Movement, who have found their voice in a collective anger. The repeated bloodshed from similar tragedies has sparked nothing but a deafening silence and business as usual from their elected officials, and these teens have been galvanized to take problems into their own hands and are not going to shy away any time soon from their demands. In a fiery speech that made the national airwaves, Emma González – a senior from MSD – preemptively countered NRA talking points we’ve often seen from them, as well as politicians who cozy up to the organization.

“This isn’t just a mental health issue! He wouldn’t have been able to kill that many people with a knife...We call B.S.!” As González wiped away tears, her tone of urgency and frustration could not have been clearer. The discussion around mental health has taken center stage as details about the assailant have emerged, showing that he was white, had a troubled childhood and had various instances of reportedly troublesome behavior which had been conveyed to authorities

President Trump, as per the norms of his presidency, took to Twitter to voice his opinions on preventative measures that should be taken to avert similar shootings from taking place. “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior…Must always report such instances to authorities!”

Trump’s take on the situation is troublesome in more ways than one—the first being simply that it logically doesn’t make sense. In a nation where one in five people live with some form of a mental illness, is Trump suggesting that we take the behaviors, or these so called ‘red flags’ that don’t fit our norms and report them? If so, to whom? The FBI?

In a larger context, Trump’s political tirade underscores something very broken about the society we live in—an issue that Gonzales’ speech hit a nerve on. ‘Red flags’ aren’t a novel or foreign concept, especially to those in the neuro-divergent community, who often get labelled in this way.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we have both a gun problem and a mental health problem in America. But it’s a different kind of cruel to suggest that one problem can be solved by worsening the other. The President (and the NRA, and GOPers, and probably a bunch of other folks) want us to report people who are ‘disturbed’ or ‘deluded’ – putting a target on their back. Let’s do the math here. The Florida shooter was a former student, so it was possible for teachers and concerned pupils to speak out, but the reality is that is that abnormal behavior exists in all spheres of life. This abnormal behavior doesn’t equate to harmful behavior or to the person with that behavior being a mass murderer.

That’s why people on both side of the gun debate often end up running into a wall when they talk about so-called “red flags”. Most often, they aren’t actually talking about it like the public health issue that it is (a global one too, I might add) or how to solve it, but rather explicitly expressing their ableism in trying to further isolate anyone who might deviate from norms inflicted and created by the abled. Statistics from the National Institutes of Health show that people with mental illnesses actually only commit 5% of gun crimes in the US, so drawing this false equivalency between mental illness and violence, or ‘being disturbed’ and committing acts of terror, only creates a larger stigma for a group of individuals whose behavior is already ostracized—either directly or indirectly—for being ‘deviant’ in a largely ableist society.

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