As President Obama’s executive orders addressing gun violence take effect, disability rights activists are concerned that some aspects unfairly label people with psychiatric disabilities as perpetrators of violence.
Currently, people with certain psychiatric and intellectual disabilities are prohibited by federal law from purchasing or owning guns. This week, in accordance with the President’s executive order, new rules issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services take hold, making it easier for certain entities to release the private medical information of disabled people subject to this prohibition to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
President Obama also ordered the Social Security Administration to issue rules enabling the reporting of information on adults whose Social Security disability payments are managed by a financial guardian.
This is profiling. There is no evidence that disabled people who need help managing their income are any more of a threat to society than anyone else.
In fact, much research shows that people with psychiatric disabilities are no more likely than anyone else to commit acts of violence, except perhaps against themselves. According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, people with mental illness are responsible for less than five percent of violence. Other studies have found that people with mental illness are far more likely than others to become victims of violence. They are 2.5 times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged.
The text of the president’s executive actions acknowledged these facts and also calls for spending $500 million in an unspecified manner to improve the availability of mental health services. That’s great.
But arbitrarily adding disabled people to the list of those who must be reported for national criminal background checks violates their medical privacy for no good reason. The issue is not whether people with psychiatric disabilities, or anyone else for that matter, should be allowed to own guns. The issue is that this deepens the destructive stigma associated with having a psychiatric diagnosis.
It makes it even more risky for people who need psychiatric treatment to step forward and seek help. Imagine how much more reluctant someone with a psychiatric disability might be to talk to a counselor if her medical information might be shared, on theory that she is likely to commit a violent crime.
Placing the blame for gun violence in the wrong place also makes it easier for our society to continue to avoid confronting our grotesque cultural obsession with guns, and examining the roots of the anger and fear that drives that obsession. The mental-health reporting provision of the president's executive order on guns could make the problem of gun violence worse.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. He writes the blog Smart Ass Cripple at smartasscripple.blogspot.com