Blaming Mental Health Oversimplifies Gun Violence Issue

Political cartoon by Jen Rogers

Something bad happens, and blame gets pointed your way. What do you do? Point the finger at someone else, of course.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, a blame game of epic proportions was played on a national scale. Sensible people blamed proliferation of guns. Gun activists blamed lack of guns, and after that, they blamed violent video games. Conspiracy theorists claimed the entire ordeal was staged. At some point there was even discussion of probing the shooter’s DNA for a “murder gene.”

Of course, we can’t forget the classic Straw Man erected: Mental health awareness, or lack thereof.

The mental health side of the coin caught more attention when a rumor circulated that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS). This in turn led to some rather uninformed people proclaiming across social networks that clearly those diagnosed with AS were dangerous neurotics who should be allowed nowhere near guns.

Therein lies the problem: Blaming the Sandy Hook tragedy on mental disorders only worsens an already heavy social stigma held toward these disorders.

For the sake of specific subjects, I will keep the focus on Asperger Syndrome and other Autism spectrum disorders. These disorders already hold stigma and stereotypes, but they fall somewhere between “Rain Man” and Sheldon Cooper, not “Dangerous Lunatic.” The actions of Adam Lanza can sway those stereotypes in a very negative direction.

As someone who is both diagnosed with Aspergers and has known several people diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I can attest those on the spectrum are among the least dangerous people on the planet, unless you consider excessive discussion of trains and Pokémon to be harmful to your health. Blaming the actions of Adam Lanza on his (possible, never confirmed) Asperger Syndrome serves to create an excessively negative stereotype, one of which people would be afraid to admit. In turn, this unwillingness to admit to the stereotype prevents them from seeking the help they need.

Thus, a vicious cycle begins: A harsher stereotype magnifies existing feelings of alienation and isolation. Why would one seek help when the moment a diagnosis is made, suddenly they are regarded as a danger to society? Who willingly submits to pariah status?

It comes across as hypocritical: Certain parties oppose blanket restrictions on purchasing firearms yet claim mental health checks should be administered to allow gun ownership. Even people with no history of mental health problems can become dangerous without warning. Just as blame cannot be leveled at guns alone, it also cannot be placed on disorders alone. It foolishly seeks to simplify an infinitely complex issue.

Regarding those with mental health issues as potential dangerous individuals is not the way to approach this issue. Promoting awareness should not be regarded as preventing tragedy, but simply helping those in need. People diagnosed with mental disorders are just that: people. Not tragedies waiting to happen, just individuals with needs a little different than your own.