Many have proclaimed that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is the most sweeping gun control legislation to be passed in decades. However, the bill is not primarily a gun control bill—instead, much of the Act seeks to improve mental health services in hopes of preventing gun violence. Such a move is not rooted in established evidence, which finds little predictive value in knowing an individual’s mental health history. In fact, people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators. The Act therefore shifts the debate about gun reform from one about easy access to guns to one about improving mental health services. This is not without consequence.
This paper analyzes the effects of tying mental health to gun violence through legislation. Specifically, it argues that the rhetoric and policy mandates enacted in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act reproduce internal, interpersonal, and structural stigma against people with mental health disabilities. Investments in community-based services are sorely needed, but tying these reforms to gun violence prevention will increase stigma. This paper acknowledges some provisions’ transformative potential while tempering optimism about the scope and nature of these services because they are provided under the auspices of preventing gun violence. Providing mental health relief through a gun control bill reproduces stigma in three key ways. First, by discursively tying gun ownership to one’s mental health history, lawmakers have created a binary between “law-abiding” citizens and the “mentally ill.” The latter category presumptively loses their constitutional rights by virtue of being part of a stigmatized group. Second, because of regional variation in availability and types of services, new crisis intervention lines often work with local law enforcement, creating the potential for incarceration, involuntary hospitalization, or even death. Finally, making educational professionals responsible for “detecting” violent behavior risks contributing to the family policing system and marking racial minorities and students with disabilities as delinquents due to an administrator or teacher’s animus. This paper ultimately echoes calls by suicidologists, psychiatric expatients/consumers/survivors, and policymakers to create and improve community-based services free from coercion.
The Structural Harms of Providing Mental Health Services Through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,
102 Neb. L. Rev. 52
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