Gun violence rhetoric stigmatizes disability

[Content warning: This article makes references to gun violence.]

Sunday night, as the nation slept, Stephen Craig Paddock entered the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas and fired upon a crowd of more than 20,000 people. At least 59 were killed and 500 more were injured. It is, so far, the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

The news coming out of Las Vegas—the ever-increasing death count, the videos and pictures of the people who died—is all too horrible to put into words. Even more horrible, however, is the stark reality that this will most likely not be the most deadly mass shooting in my lifetime. Its record-breaker could come this very year, next year or the year after. Who knows?

And it will continue as long as the American government refuses to act to prevent shootings and as long as the public continues to accept such violence as an inevitable fact of life. The time has come for us to stop politicizing tragedy and to try to prevent it instead. These horrific displays of violence ought to be considered worthy of immediate response from the government, the same way it is in the event of a train accident or a natural disaster.

Unfortunately, however, while this attack will surely reignite a national conversation about gun control, it will not ultimately put policy into effect. If it couldn’t be done with the Democrats in the White House, it can’t be done with the Republicans controlling both Congress and the presidency. The initial push for reform will be met with significant backlash from the National Rifle Association and, in a few weeks, all this suffering shall be rendered meaningless—a mere footnote of history—long before the next mass shooting comes around.

In the meantime, we will be treated to the usual scapegoats as the media continues to avoid addressing substantive issues. I, for one, am not looking forward to the endless barrage of mainstream coverage crying that the true culprit behind such tragedies as these is not guns but mental illness. I resent the commonly held belief that mass shootings can only ever be committed by mentally ill people. It seems to stem from a bizarre assumption that a “healthy” person would never commit acts of violence. I have met numerous people who have claimed that you cannot be both mentally healthy and voluntarily kill even one other person, let alone conduct a mass act of violence on this scale.

This distorts the reality that people with mental illnesses are statistically no more likely than any other person to commit acts of violence. Only three to five percent of acts of violence in the United States can be attributed to someone with a significant mental illness. Moreover, people with mental health disabilities are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than those without. The idea that mentally ill people are more dangerous than the rest of the population is farcical.

Still, mental illness is an easy scapegoat. Politicians face steeper consequences for speaking out against guns than they do for speaking out against disabled people. Instead, it is disabled people who face the repercussions of these actions in the form of increased stigma, social isolation and self-loathing. The media witch hunt against disabled people in the aftermath of mass shootings has its own casualties, and it makes the world no safer.

Even in the wake of this most recent tragedy, the media has begun blaming mental illness. The BBC claims that “there was reason to believe Paddock had a history of psychological problems” and emphasized that his father, bank robber Patrick Benjamin Paddock, had been “diagnosed as psychopathic.” His neighbors told the BBC that he was quiet and “weird” (BBC, “Stephen Paddock: Vegas suspect a gambler and ex-accountant,” 10.2.2017).

I understand, of course, that there is a journalistic duty to report the facts, and I am not so naive as to suggest that a possible mental illness could never be relevant in a case such as this. Yet, the constant barrage of baseless speculation, coupled with ill-advised and doomed policy recommendations, neither solves the problem of mass shootings nor ensures that those with mental health disabilities will receive the help they need.

The mental health system in the United States is certainly broken, but the problem isn’t that we’re not locking enough people up. I’m concerned that this kind of coverage leads to legislation that makes it easier to force people into institutions against their will under the guise of protecting the public.

And yet, this, as established earlier, is ludicrous. For the entirety of human civilization, perfectly rational people have been committing horrible acts of violence on a massive scale.

From the Crusades to the Vietnam War, from the Cambodian genocide to the Holocaust, humanity has always found reasons to commit atrocious acts of violence in increasingly brutal ways. To view these mass shootings as a symptom of untreated mental illness is to dismiss thousands upon thousands of years of world history in favor of an easy answer, to ignore problems within our own culture in favor of an issue that feels easier to resolve.

I do not, for the record, accept that those who view mental illness as the cause of this violence have an unrealistically positive perspective on human nature. I believe that this viewpoint is inherently selfish, allowing us to blame others rather than be determine what societal issues cause these issues. Moreover, this perspective not only distracts from real solutions, but also causes significant unnecessary harm. There is no reason to give this viewpoint a pass because those who share it “mean well” when it causes harm to this extent.

I don’t believe that any good will come out of this tragedy. We won’t pass common-sense gun legislation, and in the process we’ll be put through a tiresome, protracted national debate that will ultimately leave the public disinterested in gun control until the next mass shooting. In the meantime, we will be further stigmatizing and isolating disabled people while ignoring the cultural issues that lead to these tragedies. It’s time for us as a society to stop blaming disabled people and to start working towards a solution.

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