Shootings, and how not to prevent them

In order to prevent yet more tragedies like the shooting at the Planned Parenthood centre in Colorado Springs, gun rights activists – and rightwingers in general – often suggest that we need to prevent the ‘mentally ill’ from gaining access to firearms. In fact, even Democrats and centrists say that, “I think as a state, but as a country, we have got a lot more thinking about this, of how to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of people that are unstable,” as the governor John Hickenlooper said (and the Mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, echoed).

This strikes me as one of those anodyne statements that is simultaneously impossible to disagree with and yet completely useless. Of course we should be tough on the causes of crime. Of course we should improve our children’s education. And of course we should prevent those who we think are likely to kill civilians with guns from possessing guns. The question is how we do that.

Robert Dear, the man suspected of the Planned Parenthood killings, was considered to be strange, not dangerous. He had no entry in any database that marked him as being mentally unstable – because no such database exists. It’s hard to imagine how one could ever exist; the notion stinks of Precrime-style profiling, an attempt to predict crimes that haven’t yet been committed. Mental illness is not a crime, and the great majority of people who are mentally ill (a woolly category if I’ve ever seen one) do not commit violent crimes. And even if that were not the case, science is yet to produce a foolproof ‘mental illness’ detector.

I realise that the whole ‘guns don’t kill people, stop mentally ill people from getting guns’ is essentially a smokescreen. My point is that it’s a terrible, incoherent smokescreen. Gun rights activists love to cite the US Constitution, but I can’t think of a worse violation of it than a law prohibiting individuals who’ve been designated as ‘mentally ill’ from ever possessing arms. What if Obama designates all gun advocates as being mentally ill?!!?!!11!