When you use “mentally ill” and “criminal” as interchangeable, you’re perpetuating a dangerous stereotype.
In an article that ran on The Daily Beast earlier today, author David Frum, reported on a story concerning the ease with which an 18-year-old Florida man was able to obtain a gun, despite a criminal record and an extensive history of mental illness. He titled the post “Here’s How Easily a Mentally-Ill Teen Can Get a Gun“, which implies that mental illness is more frightening than a criminal record.
The original story, which ran in the Tampa Bay Times, explains that 18-year-old Benjamin Bishop was able to obtain the 12 gauge pump-action shotgun that he used to murder his mother and her boyfriend by having a friend, Matthew Schwab, purchase it for him. Bishop, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and also had a juvenile record for taking a knife to school, had been turned away from purchasing the weapon himself because of his criminal background, not because of his diagnosis of mental illness. The Times notes,
Bishop’s history of mental illness would not have stopped him from buying a weapon, since a judge had never declared him mentally defective. But the terms of his sentencing after he took the knife to school put him in the same class as felons under state law, prohibited from owning firearms or ammunition, according to officials in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office.
Both the title of Mr. Frum’s article and the excerpt he chose to include are extremely misleading, leaving the reader to believe this is exclusively a case of a mentally ill teen obtaining a weapon and not a convicted criminal. This is not to say the Bishop’s mental illness is not part of the overall issue, or even what lead to his actions in murdering his mother and her boyfriend. But statistics show that people with mental illnesses, even severe ones, are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators thereof. And by deliberately treating the terms “mentally ill” and “criminal” as though they are interchangeable, Mr. Frum is perpetuating the kind of thoughtless stigmatization of mental illness that people so often take for granted.
The issue of “straw buyers”, people like Schwab who knowingly purchase guns for others to circumvent laws like these, is a serious one. It’s easy for them to justify their actions, because after all, those laws are meant to keep guns out of the hands of “bad guys”, and they’re just getting it for a friend. He’s not a bad guy, not a real bad guy, they tell themselves. He needs this gun to protect himself from the real bad guys, the scary ones you see on TV. He’s got a few problems, sure, but he’s not scary.
Everyone always thinks there’s something scarier than themselves or their friends, everyone wants to believe that it’s the other guys who are a threat, which is true right up until the day that it’s not. We need to learn to be honest about assessing threats, about understanding risks, because it’s way too easy to rationalize things to ourselves. And treating mental illness and criminal behavior as though they’re the same thing is not a step toward being more honest.