Privacy SOS

A terrible idea is catching on

The CEO of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, gave what reporters thought was going to be a press conference today, marking the first substantive remarks from the powerful gun advocacy organization since the horrific murders of 26 people in Newtown, CT last week. 

He talked for a long time and said lots of things, mainly focusing on how arming more people ("good guys," he called them) would solve the violence crisis lickety split. "More cops, more guns, less violence" seemed to be his overall message. Instead of critiquing that theme I want to focus in on one particularly disturbing comment. (But click here to read where that sort of militaristic approach to curbing violence leads.) (And click here to read about why we shouldn't outlaw certain kinds of video games in response to these kinds of tragedies.)

LaPierre asserted that one of the underlying reasons we keep seeing mass shootings of the Newtown variety is the federal government's "refusal" to create "an active national database of the mentally ill." That comment made my head spin so fast I thought it was going to pop off my neck. Perhaps he said it because Mr. LaPierre would like to deflect attention from his own organization's lobbying history on questions pertaining to background checks and gun ownership. Whatever his motivation, arguing that we should further stigmatize the mentally ill by putting their names in a centralized federal database is…well…it's hard for me to appropriately describe it without cursing.

Still, I'll try. Here's a brief run down of the reasons why a "national database of the mentally ill" is a terrible, destructive idea that won't solve our violence crisis.

  1. Given what we know about the federal government's secretive terrorism watch-lists and databases, and what we know about the ever changing landscape of mental health and disorder designations, it'd be best if we never, ever get into the business of databasing people with diagnosed mental illnesses. (It's actually too late for that, though, at least to a degree; the FBI maintains such a database already, though states are not forced to submit information to it because the Supreme Court said "no way" to that requirement in 1997.) Unless, that is, you trust the federal government to accurately maintain the most sensitive information about your health, and not share it inappropriately, or use it against you in oppressive ways. Just imagine the NCTC using your mental health records as one part of its "disposition matrix," attempting to figure out who is a threat to society from the mass of data it collects about all of us. Adding more information, particularly sensitive and ever changing mental health information, to that pile of data is a bad idea.
  2. One in four US adults has some kind of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Is putting 25% of the population into a so-called mental illness database really the appropriate response to gun violence? Perhaps we should tattoo the letters "M.I." on people's faces, as well, to ensure that you know if someone sitting next to you on the train is one of those Americans who cannot be trusted because they are depressed or, hell, maybe because they are transgender. (Being trans was up until this year, yes, 2012, considered to be a mental illness. Heaven forbid trans people, targets of insanely high levels of violence, bear arms to protect themselves.) (Note: see update at bottom.)
  3. Putting the names of people with diagnosed mental illnesses into a federal database would not protect our children or society from violence because people who are not mentally ill also commit murder and because plenty of people who have serious mental illness are never officially diagnosed as such, rendering the database intrinsically destined to be incomplete and providing (a damn good) reason for people with actual mental health problems to refrain from seeking help. But most importantly, the evidence suggests that the increasingly common conflation of mental illness with predisposition to violence is extremely exaggerated. The Institute of Medicine, 2006: "Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population." Throwing mentally ill people under the bus, and attacking their right to personal privacy, further stigmatizes an already stigmatized group of people — among them our family members, coworkers and friends. It isn't right and it wouldn't work.
  4. Finally, we've seen mission creep in so many government data gathering and data mining operations of late that we should be very concerned about the precedent we are setting by warehousing the personal health information of the mentally ill in federal databases. Given that some research suggests we can predict disposition towards mental illness in our DNA, would the next step in this stigmatization campaign be the inclusion of fetuses' information in such databases? And for adults, where would we decide to draw the line regarding how this information can be used? Would the federal government access it in hiring decisions, meaning that someone with a history of depression would find it difficult to get a job at the IRS or the post office? 

Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect described the flawed logic thusly:

Oh my, where to begin? Mental illness is just now starting to become less stigmatized. If we create an even more Orwellian society in which anyone who has ever sought treatment for emotional problems ended up in some national database, you can just imagine what that would do to people’s willingness to seek help. [snip] 
Surveillance as a substitute for gun control is no idle threat. In the age of anti-terrorism, courts have already permitted the National Security Agency to troll among otherwise confidential records—everything from cell phone and computer-information trails to bank and insurance company records. The Fourth Amendment, which usually requires a warrant for invasion of privacy, has been simply waived. If the justification is preventing “terrorism”—and surely shooting up a classroom is a kind of terrorism—the NSA could create a database in which half of Americans are classified as potential mass killers. 
Amen. Stop blaming the mentally ill for the nation's violence crisis. It might sell well on both sides of the partisan divide, because it completely avoids politically tricky subjects like gun control, but it would be a privacy and health disaster. Unfortunately, it's happening under our noses.
Sometimes problems are just complicated. Throwing mentally ill people under the bus to pretend we are addressing our culture of violence is a terrible idea. So let's not.
UPDATE: As Charlie Savage notes on Twitter, the Gun Control Act of 1968 bans any person "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution" from owning a gun. That's the underlying statute. The Washington Post reports today: "Shortly after the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress allocated additional funds for states that shared at least 90 percent of their mental health records with the federal government, which they could put toward their criminal justice programs." Remember, the feds can't force states to submit to the database because of a 1997 SCOTUS ruling, but they can encourage participation via grants and the like.
From Savage's timely report on the system:
A July report by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan Congressional watchdog, found that the total number of mental health records submitted by states to the background check system increased to 1.2 million from about 126,000 between 2004 and 2011, but that the increase largely reflected the efforts of just 12 states. And, it found, 30 states were not making noncriminal records — like positive drug test results for people on probation — available to the system.
The Gun Control Act says that people who have been committed or adjudicated as "a mental defective" cannot own weapons. That's step one in the stigmatization process. (Ask older gay people how many of their community members were forcibly committed to mental institutions.) The second problem is the data sharing with the federal government. I haven't been able to find accurate information about whether states are sharing all of their mental health records with the feds or simply those that pertain to the committed or adjudicated as "mental defectives," but we should remain concerned about such a database regardless. For one, there's database creep; what starts with just those forcibly committed could turn into anyone who visits a shrink. But that's not all. Plenty of people have been forcibly committed to mental institutions for oppressive reasons. This article explains that problem very well. (This is a particularly interesting story.)
Being refused gun ownership is one thing. Being labeled as insane in a federal database is another.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.