In a new essay in the British medical journal The Lancet, Vanderbilt University professor Jonathan M. Metzl attempts to dispel some of the myths surrounding mental disabilities and gun violence.
Metzl begins by criticizing the media’s reaction to the Jared Loughner shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, specifically the media’s obsession with the mental health narrative and the oversimplification of the discussion regarding the symptoms of mental illnesses.
He proceeds to argue that the link between mental disabilities and gun violence is less obvious than popularly believed, citing evidence that “less than 3 to 5 percent” of crimes committed nationally involve people with mental illnesses. Of that figure, the percentage of crimes involving guns is actually lower than the national average for people without mental disabilites.
Throughout the essay, Metzl documents historical episodes that created the language used regarding mental disabilities and its popular conceptions. He argues that much of the rhetoric describing mental health parallels the rhetoric once used by the government to discredit civil rights activists, such as Malcolm X and Robert Williams.
“As history reveals, decisions about which crimes American culture diagnoses as “crazy”, and which crimes it deems as “sane”, are driven as much by the politics and anxieties of particular cultural moments as by the innate neurobiologies of particular assailants,” Metzl writes in the essay.