A redditor gets it right about mental health screenings before buying guns

There’s quite a bit of discussion going on right now about what can be done in response to the Charleston SC church shooting.  Many people are wanting mental health screenings before firearms purchasing.  One redditor gave a particularly insightful response:

I don’t have a solution, but there are a lot of comments about the role of mental health professions in addressing the problem of gun violence that I think are short-sighted. I am a mental health professional and I cannot see how a requirement of sound mental status for gun ownership or purchase could be achieved. Here is why:

First, the presumption that mental health professionals are good at predicting future behavior is not true. It is easy to look back at a person’s history and see all the “red flags” and assume that someone should have known he would be a murderer and should have done something to prevent it. I have seen many patients with mental illness; I have never suspected that any of them would murder someone. But one of them surely could’ maybe even years later. And someone would suggest that I should have predicted it. Am I then culpable?

Second, shifting the responsibility of whether a person should be allowed to purchase a gun to a mental health professional is a huge liability for that person. So I would have to decide whether a person’s emotional problems would make them likely to commit gun violence. And, because I can’t know that with any certainty, I would have to error on the side of caution (for my protection), and report that person to whomever the state requires. Now that person who is probably at low threat of killing someone can’t buy a gun because the liability is so high that I can’t take the personal risk. No clinician wants that burden, liability, and ethical dilemma and I would personally move to a different state if that became a requirement.

Third, who gets to set the criteria for whether a person’s mental health status should restrict gun rights? If it is at the clinician’s discretion, it will occur arbitrarily. And the need to be “better safe than sorry” will result in a lot of people on a list that will never commit a violent crime. One might think that it should be based on mental health diagnosis. But guess what? Everyone who seeks treatment for a psychological issue gets a diagnosis; that’s how insurance claims are made. Which diagnoses should restrict rights? Mood disorders? Personality disorders? Psychotic disorders? If the person is treated successfully, are their rights restored? How would that process occur?

Let’s say we decide that we don’t want people with a history of mental health issues to be put on a list that prevents gun purchase. Then someone who wants to buy a gun should have to pass a mental health screening prior to purchase, right? What private clinicians are going to volunteer for that gig? None. So the state will have to employ their own clinicians to do the screenings. And when those clinicians have to weigh the risk of not identifying a mental health problem against clearing you to buy a gun, anything in your history could be used as justification to deny you your rights. Hope you never got arrested for anything.

I don’t want the mentally ill to buy guns. I don’t want regular folks with intermittent emotional problems to be restricted from buying guns. And our ability to distinguish between these groups is limited. Having mental health clinicians making decisions about gun rights has serious problems.

Another redditor responded to this:

I also have an additional issue on this. If mental health professionals have the ability to take away/prevent the ownership of firearms, it means that anyone with a firearm is less likely to go to a professional when they need help. Thinking along the lines of, “I think I’m dealing with depression, but if I go to the doctor and he agrees, he may take away my guns,” wouldn’t be uncommon.

Isn’t that literally the opposite of what we want to happen? Putting a potential penalty *that people care about* on getting help seems to me to be the opposite of what we want to do if our goal is getting people help.

And got this in reply:

Spot on. And this distrust already happens because of real consequences for seeking mental health treatment. It can affect your insurability (life, medical, and disability) and ability to get a government job. If you ever got divorced, it could affect custody. Even though I work in the field and believes in the benefits of mental health treatment, I honestly don’t blame people who think the risks outweigh the potential benefits. The risk of losing a constitutional right is no joke and feeds into the belief held by many that there are broad-reaching efforts to disarm Americans.

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