It was wrong to repeal an Obama administration rule that would have restricted gun sales to persons with severe mental illness.
WHEN my mother was 48, she cruised downtown to the Seattle Ferry Terminal, blew through the toll gates and tried to drive onto a ferry that was discharging cars. Police tried to stop her, and she fled.
Soon there was a diagnosis: “manic-depressive.” In the following months there were shopping sprees where she filled her cart with body-care products at Marshall’s. A midnight trip to the airport when she decided we were moving to Israel. Her mad dash out of the McDonald’s where we were eating lunch, straight into a rush of traffic.
In these early months of the new administration, the House and Senate briskly voted — and President Donald Trump signed — a resolution revoking an Obama-era regulation that restricted gun sales to some people with severe mental illness. The rule required the Social Security Administration to provide NICS, a gun-sales background check system, with data of recipients whose mental illness was so severe it prevented them from holding a job or managing their financial affairs. The rule would have affected about 75,000 people. One of them was my mother.
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Arguments against the rule ranged from the infringement of Second Amendment rights (House Republicans) to the risk of perpetuating stereotypes against the mentally ill (ACLU). Others pointed out that the rule targets those people who are getting stable treatment (a requirement for receiving benefits), while those outside of formal support systems tend to pose a greater risk to themselves and others. But despite these and other good arguments in favor of the rights of the mentally ill, the repeal of the rule is a mistake that will cost lives.
Not because the mentally ill are dangerous (though there is some evidence that severe mental illness — like my mother’s — modestly increases a person’s lifetime risk for violence). Rather, because, as one expert put it, “There’s overwhelming evidence that the mentally ill kill themselves more frequently if they have access to guns.”
Once my mother told me that she had died in the Holocaust and been reincarnated. She wondered, in a state of elation, if perhaps I had also died in the Holocaust. This was a matter we needed to pursue. I wondered then (and still wonder now) how far those thoughts are from others more perilous. Such as: Time for the next reincarnation!
People with bipolar disorder have a suicide risk 15 times that of the general population. Research indicates that up to 13 percent of schizophrenic patients die by suicide. While most methods of suicide have a high survival rate, gun suicides are lethal. More than 80 percent of firearm suicide attempts are successful.
I have a friend whose daughter attempted suicide more than once, and he tells me that learning to shoot was a part of her recovery, a practice that made her feel empowered and safe. But not all people with mental illness can always act so effectively in their own interest. And those are exactly the people this rule was meant to protect. It’s been three years since my mother’s last manic episode. Before that, she was stable for 12 years, and I thought it was for good. So did she. But mental illness is unpredictable. I have seen her recover from each episode only to discover the things she has done. It is those recoveries, her unharmed, that I will always be grateful for. If only others whose loved ones bear the burden of mental illness may also be so lucky.