Why America’s absurd gun control laws are the red herring in the Connecticut school shooting debate

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The National Rifle Association said that. You probably think, because I just said it too, that this is going to be a slice of pop-nihilism or a tedious rant about the pervasive cruelty of the human race. But it won’t be, I promise – stick around.

Before I get into why gun control has wrongly dominated the debate which surrounds the appalling Connecticut shootings, I feel I should also stress that, yes, obviously America needs to change. Obviously it needs to reform its gun laws. It should probably throw out the second amendment as well, and replace it with strict regulations on their precious firearms.

But there is a critical element to the media furore surrounding these killings that, were it not for the efforts of a handful of cartoonists, public personalities and writers, is in danger of remaining the elephant in the room.

A brilliant cartoon was published in the Houston Chronicle shortly after the murders. In it, a slightly simian-looking figure dithers between a gun store lit up like a Christmas tree, and a steep set of steps leading to a psychiatrist’s chair (note the psychiatrist seems aloof and disinterested, adding another layer of pessimism to the sketch.) Obviously the first figure is our would-be shooter, the next isolated, lonely and misunderstood wraith hoping to be immortalized by the media as another Seung Hui-Cho or Adam Lanza.

It perfectly sums up the problem with the way we treat mental illness, not just in America’s economic terms but also from a social perspective. We don’t really know what “mental illness” is. We’re afraid of it, and we often try to categorise it. Throwing words like schizophrenia, autism or antisocial personality disorder at something as utterly unfathomable as a school shooter might make them seem a bit less scary; at the time of writing, there is rife speculation that Lanza was indeed “lightly autistic.”

But searching for a medical label to pin on one of these people for the sake of making their actions less inscrutable is a step backwards – and an insult to the vast numbers of sufferers of mental illness themselves. It is something that we fundamentally misunderstand and stigmatise, and I suspect that this is one of the reasons it is so poorly addressed in third and first world countries alike.

The Washington Post recently claimed, for example, that spending on mental health care in the US has vastly shifted towards prescription drugs and outpatient treatment. In fact spending on inpatient treatment dropped between 1986 and 2005 to a paltry 19 percent of the budget, while drugs shot from 7 percent to 27 percent. Now, undoubtedly those drugs are of huge benefit to those who need them – and nobody else should touch that money any time soon – but the lack of funding of actual mental health institutions is a concerning one indeed.

Equally worryingly, the Post also uncovered that a significant proportion of Americans shun mental health care because it’s too expensive. Around 46% of Americans treated for what our society clumsily refers to as mental “illness” said that price was the main factor in this reluctance to seek help.

But perhaps most striking of all is the fact that the U.S cut a whopping $1.8 billion dollars during the recession, a period which naturally put intense strain on the mental health of all but the wealthiest. In other words there’s simply not enough money going into the coffers that might give sufferers from mental “illness” a new lease on life, whether it be through medication, therapy or otherwise.

But there is another aspect to our treatment of mental illness that needs addressing immediately, and not just in America – and that is the stigma which has been attached to it for as long as reordered history. In the UK, an incredible amount of progress has already been made on this issue. A local example for readers of this publication is OUSU’s “Mind Your Head Campaign” which made great progress in getting people to talk about mental illness and take it out of a shadowy social space reserved once for pariahs and outcasts. As F Scott Fitzgerald, himself bitterly well acquainted with the effects of mental illness, put it: “There is no greater difference between men (his words) as profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” This is the gap that needs to be narrowed when it comes to mental illness, bringing it back into the public sphere of debate so that people know that it’s OK to seek help.

Obama talked about “meaningful action” in his speech that came hot on the heels of those killings in Connecticut. It seems he was referring to a strict crackdown on gun laws in the U.S.A – and rightly so.

We need to make more progress in removing the stigma of mental illness, and put more money into raising awareness of it – as well as funds for mental health care. Until then, the state will continue to fail to reach out to people who might have behaved otherwise if there was a sympathetic ear to hear their despair.

No matter what we do, there will be more school shootings – in fact, one would-be copycat Sandy Hook killer has already been arrested. Over to you, Obama.

PHOTO/ Dougtone