The response to mass shootings where the mental health of the perpetrator is in question or where there are known mental health issues often includes exhortations to prevent the mentally ill owning guns. There are significant, to put it lightly, legal, moral, and ethical problems with this.
The mentally ill are people too.
The legal issues should be immediately obvious. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Fifth Amendment, of course, belongs to the Bill of Rights, the collection of ten amendments that enshrine rights the People hold, irrespective of acts of government. The Fourteenth Amendment is one of the Reconstruction-era amendments aimed at reinforcing the rights of freed slaves and specifically says that the States cannot pass laws the circumvent the Constitution’s protections.
Both amendments make it clear that due process must be used if someone is to have their civil liberties abridged. This includes the right to keep and bear arms.
There is also a significant legal question about whether placing someone’s medical diagnosis in a background check system sans a court ruling violates HIPAA.
The mentally ill are people too.
But beyond these very real, and formidable, legal questions, it is necessary to consider the very chilling effect that using one’s mental health state as a means to curtailing their civil liberties could have.
As a society, we still have a long way to go when it comes to destigmatizing mental illness. People sill think that a mental illness is something that one can “man up” from. I am probably taking some degree of risk in being public about my mental health status. Could potential future employers shy away from me, for instance, if they track down my blog? To me, the benefits of being open outweigh those risks. But if my diagnosis can be used to deny me freedom without a court finding that I represent a risk to anyone? That becomes a different matter entirely.
If you want to drive mental illness back under the rug, if you want people to avoid treatment for fear of losing their freedom, then, by all means, start treating us as second-class citizens.
If you want the mentally ill to get help and reduce the possibility of them being threats to themselves or others, then do not use our diagnosis against us. If someone is identified as a possible threat, use the legal system as it was intended. Do not treat us as second-class citizens.
We are people too.