As the debate rages on over how to address the mass shootings that have so darkened this nation, one popular suggestion is to pass “red flag” laws, which would allow law enforcement to quickly confiscate guns from people who are deemed to be a threat, pending some sort of due process to decide whether these people should have weapons. Other suggestions schools are looking at include programs that scour the social media pages of the school’s students looking for warning signs of violence or self-harm. These approaches carry tremendous promise, but also tremendous danger.
First, red-flag laws. While I think we all agree that there are people who shouldn’t have guns, it is incredibly important to narrowly define who the law applies to. If you simply say the law applies to the mentally ill, then you are unfairly stigmatizing almost a quarter of the population, fueling the misconception that all mentally ill persons are dangerous, and probably violating the 2nd Amendment by infringing on the gun rights of so many innocent people. I believe red flag laws can work, but only if those who implement the law are incredibly careful about the language they use when drafting the law.
Second, having computers search the social media pages of schoolchildren for warning signs. Again, this could help preemptively identify not only mass shootings, but also suicides, which are another danger facing today’s youth. However, public schools are still government actors, and allowing any government actor such a deep look at personal accounts sets a troubling precedent and raises numerous questions about online privacy. Furthermore, given the stigma surrounding mental illness, a stigma that only grows every time someone falsely links mass shootings with mental health issues, such an invasion of privacy may prevent students from talking openly about their struggles and may actually do more harm than good.
We all want to be safe, but it is important that ‘all’ includes the 1 in 4 people currently struggling with mental illness. How can those of us who fall into that category possibly feel safe, if those in office refer to us and treat us like dangerous criminals? What will happen to privacy in a world where society misses the smoking gun while looking at the shooter?
One thing is clear, and that is that something must change. A world where a trip to the corner store could be dangerous is not a world where anxiety disorders can be addressed, but rather one where everyone lives in anxiety. Yet action must come from reason, not fear. We must recognize that hate is not a mental illness, that mental illnesses are not synonymous with being dangerous, and that faith and trust can go a long way towards healing.
The proposals I talked about here are full of promise and good intention. But an overzealous application combined with misinformation are how these good intentions will pave the road to hell. I hope that these proposals are handled carefully, and I pray that those in charge finally find the wisdom to stop blaming mental illness for these nightmares, so that all of us, including those currently struggling with mental illness, can final feel safe.