This study takes as a starting place the inherent tension between public safety and civil rights in considering mental illness as a significant concern for firearms policy and law. This means grappling with the full range of social benefits and costs that may accrue in casting a wide net with a broad mesh to find a few dangerous people among the many with largely non-dangerous disorders of thought, mood, and behavior. Whatever the evidence suggests about people with mental illness and violence—and for most there is no linkage—they are often portrayed as dangerous in the mass media and perceived as such by the general public.
Fear stokes avoidance and social rejection, which in turn beget discrimination. And if they are no longer “one of us,” coercion, loss of privacy, and unwarranted deprivation of liberty become easy to justify. Ironically, this alienates people with serious but treatable mental health conditions and encumbers their desire to seek help with worry about what that might entail. A public policy of categorical exclusion based on the presumed dangerousness of one group may serve the public interest but not without overreaching and not without social cost.
This study acknowledges that the exigencies of policymaking must sometimes outpace the evidence for what works. But it is also true that crisis-driven law is not always carefully deliberated and that the results can make things worse and be difficult to undo. Prudence, then, makes it crucial that available empirical research contribute as much as possible to the policymaking process, even if the existing research is messy, incomplete, and not wholly generalizable. In that spirit, this study presents new findings from an empirical study of the effectiveness of federal gun prohibitions in reducing the risk of violent crime in a Connecticut sample of more than 23,000 people with serious mental illness. Using merged administrative records from the state’s public mental health and criminal justice systems for the years 2002 through 2009, our quasi-experimental analysis spans the periods before and after Connecticut began reporting mental health records to the National Instant Criminal. This study considers implications of our research results for possible (and perhaps newly feasible) policy reforms to reduce gun violence.