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Newtown Begs Us to Shift Our Stigmas

By Zara Kessler
December 19, 2012 6:19 PM EST

Today, President Barack Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden will lead a team to develop concrete proposals to decrease gun violence. The president said that this would not, and could not, be politics as usual:

This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now.

As Obama charged his second-in-command with swift political action,  he charged the U.S. with a rapid cultural reconsideration:

It’s gonna require all of you. If we’re going to change things, it’s going to take a wave of Americans -- mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and, yes, gun owners -- standing up and saying, "enough" on behalf of our kids.

Biden's task is to work with the cabinet and Congress to change gun control legislation. As more than one person has highlighted, every country has residents whose minds are not fully sound; not every country finds itself plagued with a recurrence of  mass shedding of bullets.

We expect mass murderers to be crazy. In some sense, we need them to be, to assure ourselves that they are not purely evil. And often, we're right: A New York Times study in 2000 looked at 102 killers in 100 rampages over more than 50 years and established that at least half of the perpetrators had signs of serious mental health issues. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater perpetrator, and Jared Lee Loughner, the Tuscon, Arizona, shooter, all seem to have had psychological problems.

Adam Lanza allegedly suffered from Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder not linked to this sort of violence. Since Friday, we've been cautioned -- in many cases by parents of children with Asperger's -- not to exacerbate existing social stigmas by jumping to false conclusions or logical fallacies.

Yes, many mass-killers have psychological problems; but not all people with mental problems -- or even most people with mental problems -- are prone to murder. Something similar can be said of guns. Most murderers use firearms, but not all people who own firearms are murderers.

It's the people who fall into both subsets -- psychologically disturbed with ready access to guns -- who we need to worry about. If only they would grow a microscopic "SOS" birthmark that doctors could check for. But mental illness is hard to see, especially when it's hidden to deter social ostracism. Fantasies are kept bottled up. Guns aren't.

Let's treat mental illness awareness the way the National Rifle Association treats guns: something to talk about, to celebrate, not something to be ashamed of. For a guide, we might consider the evolution of stigmas about sexually transmitted diseases, which have started to fade through extensive education and insistence on widespread talking and testing. We can't march someone to a psychologist's office any more than we can force him or her to be tested for STDs, but we can try to teach young people when they should walk there themselves, and make sure they're not stigmatized for doing so.

Conversely, let's treat guns the way we have too often treated mental illness: As something awkward and unnerving. This movement too has already started. Cerberus Capital Management LP is putting its controlling stake in Freedom Group Inc., the largest U.S. gunmaker, up for sale. Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. has grown uneasy about selling guns, suspending its sale of "modern sporting rifles" -- the euphemism for military-style semi-automatics --  around the country. The Discovery channel is canceling its reality show "American Guns."

We can look to cigarettes as our historical model -- something  legal but increasingly shunned. Amanda Marcotte issued a cry at the American Prospect to restrict advertising on guns, as we've already done on cigarettes. Others have suggested treating guns like smoking in other ways, with public service ads, warning labels and special taxes.

As the president reminds us, nothing this complex is  easily rectified. Shifting our views on mental health won't solve our problems with violence any more than shifting our views on guns will, but it may just be a start.

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

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