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Mental illness and gun violence

Is there a connection? Mental health advocates weigh in.

December 22, 2012
  • A Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle with ammunition, which is similar to the Bushmaster used by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn.
A Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle with ammunition, which is similar to the Bushmaster… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

The reaction to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., last week was immediate and voluminous. Of the more than 600 letters sent to on the topic, about 120 of them mentioned mental illness as a cause for the violence. A handful of writers warned against jumping to conclusions and stigmatizing those whostruggle with mental disabilities; one writer even turned questions about psychology into ones for gun advocates. Here is a selection of those letters.

In a letter published Tuesday, Michelle Uzeta, legal director of the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles, wrote:

"The tendency in our society is to label what happened, pack it in a box and tuck it away somewhere. It's our collective defense mechanism. More often than not, the conversations quickly and unfairly turn to disability. These conversations usually lack depth and understanding, and they do nothing more than promote inaccurate and unfair stereotypes.

FULL COVERAGE: Shooting at Connecticut school

"Some reports suggested that the Connecticut shooter had a form of autism. There is no more of a correlation between autism and violence than there is between playing the piano and violence."

Ron Charach, a psychiatrist and author from Toronto, wrote:

"If the back-to-back horrors of Newtown, Conn., and Portland, Ore., are to serve as a tipping point on gun proliferation in America, people must stop asking about the specific motives of the shooters. They should ask more about the motives, both conscious and unconscious, of those who want to see so many military-style weapons being made available to civilians.

"Filmmaker Michael Moore explored attempts by the Bush administration to use post-9/11 fear to justify intrusions into people's lives, including the Patriot Act. However, one suspects there are deeper meanings behind enshrining the gun-show loopholes and of oversimplifying the 2nd Amendment, so that the first clause about a 'well-regulated militia' is removed from its sacred wording.

"Cognitive psychologists agree that much of our behavior stems from unconscious beliefs and emotions. It's time for us to ask why the leaders of the Republicans really want to see more heavily armed people go unmonitored, and why they expect society to absorb the traumas that go along with the grotesque violation of public space."

Frequent letter writer Ralph Mitchell of Monterey Park, a retired social worker, wrote:

"Why do we keep blaming mental illness for every mass tragedy that comes along? We use this as a catch-all for everything that seems to happen while shielding society from any blame. Those with the most common mental illnesses are not more likely to be violent than others.

"We are unable to see what a culture of gun ownership, violent movies and video games and military glorification does to us when this focus on violence interacts with the frustrations of a bewildering and uncaring society. I was a director of mental health clinics for Los Angeles County, and I know that those with mental illnesses react no more violently to life's circumstances than anyone else."


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