EDITORIAL: Legislating from the Psychiatrist’s Office; Just as Dangerous as Legislating from the Pulpit

Vermont State House in Montpelier

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Security is one of those words tossed around a lot these days. It seems that anyone working to enhance security – especially in politics – is granted carte blanche to pursue any course from warrantless wiretapping to mandatory X-Ray screening at our airports. But in our national quest for total security, it seems that we’ve confused ‘security’ with mere physical ‘safety’. The contentious debate surrounding controversial new gun legislation in Vermont is a clear example of this confusion.

Anne Braden and the Gun Sense Vermont organization claim to want to protect physical safety. Gun rights advocates want to protect what they perceive to be essential liberties. The heart of the debate, as I see it, arises from the two groups’ divergent understanding of the fundamental purpose of government. If you ask Ben Franklin or Samuel Adams, I suspect they’d have sided with those whose priority is the protection of liberty. Undoubtedly, the Vermont legislature recognized this and, to use the words of one Senator, “killed” the S.31 legislation.

But Gun Sense isn’t finished. They’re pursuing a more incremental approach to gun restriction now through a new piece of legislation (S.141) that will impose fewer restrictions than S.31, allowing legislators to say that S.141 is a reasonable compromise between Gun Sense and gun rights advocates. But a closer look at the logic behind the new legislation is just as stifling.

As the Free Press reported on March 26, a provision of the bill is intended to prevent those who are “in need of treatment” from obtaining a firearm. What the article doesn’t ask is how this screening will be administered and funded? How far will the effort to prevent those “in need of treatment” from obtaining a firearm go? Will prospective gun-buyers eventually have to seek out a private psychiatric evaluation and provide results to the state? If so, who pays the cost? Green Mountain Care? Will prospective gun-buyers have to go for an additional psychiatric evaluation each time they want to purchase a gun, or only once? These are some of the many questions Vermont residents are asking that need to be answered before legislators move forward.

But here’s where I really get confused by the well-intentioned activists with Gun Sense. They claim they are trying to make Vermont a safer place. But the facts show that there is almost no gun crime in Vermont. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were two murders involving guns in Vermont in 2010 and, according to the FBI, two additional murders involving guns since 2010 adding up to a total of 4 murders involving guns in five years. Meanwhile, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have published statistics showing over 60 fatalities caused by drunk-driving in Vermont since 2010. That’s more than 12 times the fatality rate caused by the misuse of guns. So why aren’t the good folks at Gun Sense involved with MADD? Will their next piece of legislation require those who apply for a driver’s license or anyone buying a car from a licensed dealership to undergo a psychiatric evaluation? What about buying alcohol? Will that require a psych eval too?

More to the point, efforts to prohibit those “in need of treatment” from enjoying the fullness of their Constitutional rights sets an ominous precedent. For instance, if you can lose your 2nd Amendment rights because you are in need of treatment, what other Amendments become subject to a psychologist’s omnipotence? It seems everyone is undergoing treatment of some kind these days, not just the “mentally ill”. And when it comes to mental illness, even the most senior experts in the mental health profession are regularly publishing protests of how mental illness has become defined and applied today.

The DSM-V, the manual used by psychiatric professionals to diagnose mental disorders, has accepted such broad definitions that Allen Frances, Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, published an excellent book, Saving Normal, to expose the motivators behind the dangerous trend of over-diagnosis.

“The pharmaceutical industry will do its best to mislead you. It is in the business of making money by expanding markets and will do whatever it takes to recruit new customers. Drug companies are constantly being fined for unscrupulously passing out false information to consumers and doctors, but they keep doing it because it is so profitable.” (pp. 239-40)

Frances goes on to observe:

“…Big Pharma seems intent on pursuing…its own brand of human monoculture. With an assist from overly ambitious psychiatry, all human difference is being transmuted into chemical imbalance that is meant to be treated with a handy pill. Turning difference into illness was among the great strokes of marketing genius accomplished in our times – up there with Apple and Facebook. But much less helpful, much more potentially harmful. (Saving Normal, p. 280)”

To see clearly how subjective the notion of “mental illness” truly is, we need only ask ourselves, What does it mean to be mentally “healthy”? This is clearly a relative concept that depends on your ideology and cultural values. For instance, in 1941 Berlin a person who disagreed with Hitler could be found mentally ill. The same is true in several totalitarian nations. According to another excellent book, Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters, the Japanese have almost no cultural construct for “mental illness”. So, in the case of Japanese-Americans, does court-ordered treatment for mental illness violate their civil rights by imposing Western European values on a culture that has no concept of mental illness? Let’s go even further. Certainly many of the people supporting tighter restrictions for gun ownership see hunting as cruel and a sign of mental illness. Likewise, if you believe that you need a gun to defend your home, you could be labeled ‘paranoid’ – another sign of mental illness. And what about all the veterans and active-duty military personnel diagnosed and being treated for varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Will they have to surrender their firearms to Vermont state authorities?

With a better understanding of the subjective nature of psychological theory, we can see clearly the dangers of implementing legislation that might threaten a person’s rights simply because someone has been deemed in need of treatment. After all, when looking at the crime statistics in Vermont, the public has almost nothing to fear from gun violence and yet the legislature is proceeding as though the problem is real. Acknowledging these facts, let’s apply the metrics used for diagnosing mental illness to the folks pressing for tighter gun restrictions.

According to the DSV-IV, Paranoid Personality Disorder is defined as: “A pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following: (1) suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming, or deceiving him or her (2) is preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates.” By these criteria, it certainly seems reasonable to say that the activists at Gun Sense might just be a little paranoid.