When to Take Away the Guns: How Guns and Mental Health Have Affected Me

bushmasterMy family knows about guns.  I am a man of African descent, who lives in North America and speaks English.  That is only possible because of one tool.  The Gun.  The gun didn’t force my ancestors into the hull of a ship on the coast of West Africa. The gun didn’t push my native ancestors off of the land we now call South Carolina (I have native American in my family, but I get my good hair from the African side).  The gun is only a tool.  Men did those horrible things, using guns.  The gun is the most important tool in the creation of this country.  We are now in a national discussion, trying to figure out how to keep this tool out of the hands of people we deem mentally ill.  My family has a history with the mentally ill as well.

Both of my grandmothers spent time in mental institutions.  By all accounts, my grandmothers were some of the greatest humans to ever walk the earth. My maternal grandmother spent a significant amount of time in St. Elizabeth, and gave birth to my two youngest uncles while there.   Both women were beautiful, smart, and engaging. They loved their families.  But, like millions of Americans, they had mental and emotional issues.  I don’t know the details about my grandmothers’ respective mental illnesses. They grew up in a time when it was impolite to discuss these things. From what we know now about mental health, there is probably someone from each generation of our family who has dealt with it, going back as far as my family’s existence as slaves on South Carolina plantations.

Over the past decade, we’ve had to deal with the mental illness that has shown up in my generation.  I only have theories on what causes things like schizophrenia (and I am not diagnosing the perpetrator of last weeks madness). I know that many people suffering from it rant and rave about god, and judgment, and death, and sexual purity while in their mid to late twenties. So much so that when I described these things to my mental health professional friends, they diagnosed it immediately.  I have theories, about how living in a society that teaches about a vengeful god who watches and punishes even thought crimes, is part of the mental issues some people are not capable to deal with. But they are just theories, that I am opened to learning more about, and discussing with anyone ready to have a grown up and real conversation.  What I do know for certain is that amongst all the ranting and ravings from this family member, their detachment, their inappropriate conversations and downright creepy and disturbing habits, we realized as a family that this person had at least 4 firearms. Weapons that this person was proud of, knew how to use, and kept in their residence. This family member learned how to use them before the mental illness set in, and had shown no signs of being violent at any point in their lives. I’ll come back to that story…

So here we are in America, having two conversations at once.  Mental illnesses and guns.  I am sad about what happened at that elementary school, but I am honestly excited that these topics are in the forefront of the media.  They don’t only arise when 6 year olds are shot down, and they won’t go away when the 24/7 news media finally pull their news vans from in front of the school.  But to frame the conversation, debate, and inevitable argument, let’s put some things in perspective:

First, we are not descending to a depth of depravity never seen before in America.  America is always, always, always killing massive amounts of innocent women and children. Iraq, Vietnam, Black Wall Street, Native Americans and even Mormons in the old west. Most times we considered the women and children “others” instead of “us”, so we feel less outrage. But crazed men with guns walk into schoolyards, private residences, and churches, and try to kill everyone all the time in our history. We have not reached a new low in our society. Just recently in Afghanistan a marine took out a family in the middle of the night with his machine gun. Just snapped. This is not new. This is what America has always done. Guns don’t cause this. Insane, senseless, genocidal type violence is the asili (“asili” is the word Professor Marimba Ani uses to describe the seed of European cultural thought) of our country’s founding. We need to address that directly, and stop being shocked when it plays itself out in our streets and other “it’s not suppose to happen here” places. That sense of perspective is necessary to make rational decisions on what to do next.


Second, do not trust a government that is claiming to disarm you for your own safety. Gun violence is the sand that the American house is built on. The 2nd amendment isn’t about defending against home invaders, or for hunting deer in season. It’s specifically about shooting at a tyrannical government (first), pushing out Indian “savages” (second) and squashing African slave revolts (third). The three most important developments in this countries greatness (defeating the British, acquiring an entire continent full of land, and free labor to work that land) are direct results of the gun.  Our modern gun laws aren’t made to stop school shootings. They were designed by Governor Ronald Reagan and the California legislators to disarm the Black Panther Party.  The Black Panthers were African Americans bent on black people not being victims of government sanctioned police violence by using guns.  So they brandished guns themselves.  I don’t want to live in a militarized society. It just happens to be the case. I don’t want to be violent, but when most people say they “don’t believe in violence”, what they really mean is that they are unprepared when violence occurs. Violence doesn’t need ones belief in it for it to be true. It’s not like Jesus or Santa Claus. It just is. And when violence goes down, it’s best to be prepared for it.

I do not expect to be able to defend myself against Seal Team 6. I know I can’t even face off with the county sheriff. But I don’t want some government to decide to initiate marshal law, and successful use a small, well armed military to hold down millions of dissenters. Many people argue that it’s foolish to think that civilian weapons can stand against the U.S. military.  The fact that the military possess weapons that we think we have no chance against; means the 2nd amendment has already been eroded.  That thinking also misses a vital point.  The U.S. military is still figuring out how to counteract guerrilla war.  Ask the Vietnamese, or the Afghans.  An American guerrilla insurgency would eventually include both the already well-armed civilians, but also military defectors who have sided with them and brought their weapons.  Of all the guerrilla insurgencies that have occurred over the last 3 centuries, an American one would be the most formidable. (No, I am not planning an armed revolt, but I am an American, and it’s my patriotic duty to have thought this through).

The founders would literally laugh at that idea of giving up their arms.  You might think it’s crazy; to think there would come a time when Americans might need to defend themselves against other Americans, or the government itself.  I honestly don’t think we are anywhere near that.  Our government seems to change hands between one corporate sponsored political party to another with little more than a fuss every four years.  But everything in history is cyclical, and thinking that a time of relative peace will always remain, is what ambushed the people of Warsaw when the Nazi’s came to exterminate them.  It’s foolish not to be prepared, especially in a country founded by shooting people.

So we are faced with two irreconcilable truths. Guns are essential and patriotic, and mental illness is real and more prevalent than anyone cares to admit.  Now back to my story about my family member…

Our family was confronted with a choice. To keep the uncomfortable silence that we have kept for our entire family history, or be direct and honest with a member of our family we love dearly. We chose to be direct, and even though we are still in the midst of getting our loved one the mental help they need and deserve, we have educated ourselves about the condition, and most importantly, confiscated all of our family members weapons.  We have discussed it as a family, and even informed the police about our concerns.  The truth is IT’S ALREADY ILLEGAL FOR THE MENTALLY ILL TO OWN WEAPONS.  The problem isn’t making that law, it has been federal law for a long time.  The problem is, we haven’t discussed what mental illness looks like.  Now that this family member has been officially diagnosed, there isn’t a legal gun dealership in America allowed to sell this person a gun after running a background check.  Once again, this person has never hurt anyone.  But if you’ve ever looked into the eye’s of someone you love, who has been overtaken with mental illness, you realize you do not know them any more, and are not in a position to predict what you think they would do.  We have learned as a family, to not blame this person for their illness.  We have gone to counseling sessions, and read books. We have prayed and cried.  We are fighting together.

I am not revealing that persons identify.  Not because of personal shame, but because I don’t have everyone’s permission to be specific with the details. But I feel absolutely free telling this story, because I know anything I’m going through, there are virtually thousands more going through the same experience. Many families have their Uncle Pete, as portrayed in the classic 90’s film “Soul Food”.  The relative with a mental illness we stash somewhere and forget . Sometimes you need someone else to speak up about it. I have been criticized and vilified for many things in my life, but being silent in the face of impending disaster will never be one of them.

HT_patch_sandy_hook_school_kb_121214_wgSo let’s talk.  Let’s be real about what really has made this country “great”.  Let’s be real about all of our social ills and mental pitfalls.  Let’s not dismiss whatever we find out about this latest shooter as “just some crazy person”, because they have a mental illness.  Let’s find ways to deal with the real issues that have caused this society to be so violent, and not limit it to a discussion of banning the tool in carrying out this violence.  This will not get swept under the rug.  This is not some new development that America has never faced.  It’s only something we’ve never talked about.

7 thoughts on “When to Take Away the Guns: How Guns and Mental Health Have Affected Me

  1. Context: I’m a mid-30s white guy who grew up in a middle class suburb of Boston. For the most part I would describe myself as (perhaps predictably) a bit left-of-center on social issues.

    Personally, I think mental health issues are far more pressing right now than gun control issues. For one thing, as you say it’s already illegal for people with diagnosed mental disorders to own guns. This is probably at least a little unfair, given our Stone Age understanding of what is and is not a “mental disorder.” But then again, it’s hard to argue against a “better safe than sorry” approach. So I think the very first thing to say is that we would be very well-served to devote more resources to understanding the nature of mental illness and developing effective treatments for it. We are the inheritors of a nation that defeated smallpox and polio through massive, coordinated public health efforts – this is ground we have trod before, and we ought to do so again.

    Second, the stigma of mental illness is, frankly, offensive. If your neighbor or loved one has pneumonia, do you blame them and heap scorn on them when they cough? Of course not – coughing is a symptom of a disease. That the disease has a label and is relatively well-understood helps others to understand and relate to the person who suffers from it. Mental diseases have labels too, though: ones like “bat-shit crazy” or “totally insane.” These are not only overly-broad, but they’ve become cultural slang for anything unexpected or out of the ordinary (or, sometimes, something really cool). They are not effective signifiers of very real, very powerful medical conditions that merit study and treatment. When your neighbor or loved one hears voices that are not there, or sees things that don’t exist, or has thoughts that do not apply to your shared reality, do we understand that they are experiencing symptoms of a disease, like a cough, or a tumor? No – usually we flip right the hell out. Truthfully, mental diseases are terrifying. A disease like schizophrenia virtually rewires the brain, to the point where, rather than simply interpreting and synthesizing sensory inputs in order to create a representation of the external world to one’s internal mind, the brain begins to INSERT inputs and sensations that correspond to nothing outside the mind. Try to imagine what it must be like to have a brain that is no longer simply passing information along but instead is actively sabotaging your mind’s understanding of the world in which you live. How would you separate the reality from the fiction? Would you trust anyone who told you that your own brain is deceiving you? What reason would you have to believe anyone who started to tell you that the things you know are real are not, in fact, real? This to me is unfathomably scary. What’s more, as a society we are basically not able to address this issue. Public awareness of mental illness is minimal. Our medical techniques and our psychopharmacological therapies are the products of a few scant years’ worth of guessing and checking to see what might work.

    So this all is the context in which I approach the cocktail of mental illness and gun ownership. Now, I grew up in the ‘burbs but these days I live in a rural area. Three doors down from my home is a local gun range. The enthusiasm my neighbors have for gun ownership can be measured by how many hours of the day I can hear their practice shots echoing off the mountains (which is to say: all the time, light or dark). All of the folks I’ve met around here, whether they share my politics or are considerably to the right of me, are fine people and I’m happy to know them. My neighbor is a hunter and owns a number of handguns and rifles. Bob is a great guy, and I have no problem knowing about the small arsenal he’s got in his home, because I believe he’s a Responsible Gun Owner. And that’s really the key to my thoughts.

    Responsible Gun Owners understand the nature of responsibility – they don’t just own guns, they own the consequences of owning guns. A Responsible Gun Owner takes care to keep his (or her, forgive my reflexive use of masculine pronouns – English is an imprecise tool) guns safe and out of the hands of unauthorized users. This is because Responsible Gun Owners know that, if their guns were to be used to commit violence, they themselves would be accountable. Such is the nature of “responsibility.”

    How, then, should a Responsible Gun Owner take steps to ensure that their firearms are not used for violence? As lefty as I may be, I don’t think the answer lies with more gun-control laws. That’s a cop-out, when the mental illness question looms so large. I’ll be straight-up: I have NO IDEA how to answer this question. But I have a few thoughts that I’d like to bounce off of others.

    Here’s one: graduated licenses. There is a significant amount of training and evaluation one must go through in my state in order to get a permit to own a gun. The curriculum mostly covers the safe handling of firearms and their basic operation. This is a great start. I think it makes sense for the vast majority of gun owners, such as deer hunters or sport shooters. In addition to these folks though, there are whole categories of weapons that far exceed the capabilities required by hunters and sport shooters. Does it make sense to define the licensure requirements necessary to own a gun by its capacity for violence? A bolt-action hunting rifle is not a weapon of mass murder – it’s rather closer to the muzzle-loading blunderbusses our forefathers used when they crafted the 2nd Amendment than it is to the semiautomatic hand cannons that are readily available today. Why not require those who would prefer to own semi-automatic guns with large magazines and high rates of fire to undergo more thorough training and evaluation? Does it make sense to have a one-size-fits-all gun licensing scheme, especially if most people never need/want to own high-powered weapons? (Corollary: does this already exist? If I’m showing my ass here by not understanding current laws, please let me know. Further: let’s apply this to cars, too. I just read about another performing artist wrecking yet another beautiful Lamborghini. As a car guy, I cringe. I cringe on so many levels.)

    Here’s another thought: a gun brought into a home is accessible not just to the licensed user, but also to other people under that roof. Even if it’s properly stored in a locked safe with the ammunition stored elsewhere, it’s folly to think that setup is 100% infallible. That’s not how security works (ask an IT guy about “security” sometime. The ones in the know will explain that “security” is not a state of being – it’s a PROCESS.) It seems to me that even a “secured” gun that’s accessible to an unlicensed user, perhaps a family member of the license-holder, would be a massive financial liability if it were used to commit a violent crime. I wonder if insurance companies would be willing to help mitigate that risk, given that they might well be the ones who’d have to pay out if that risk were ever realized. Would it be possible to implement a system wherein insurance companies covering gun owners offer reduced premiums to gun owners who voluntarily submit themselves and the family members in their home to a rudimentary mental health screening? Granted, the screening techniques we have available to us right now may not be infallible, but they’re SOMETHING. And I’m not talking about a stint in a mental hospital here – more like an hourlong conversation with a trained clinician. I think most folks would agree that they and their family members would happily pay an hour of their time if it meant possibly heading off another Sandy Hook Elementary incident. If there’s additional risk of violence and death incurred by having guns in the home, let’s take steps to try and make sure that the people in that home are not at an elevated risk of suffering from some kind of mental illness that might lead to tragedy. Again, I would vastly prefer that this program were voluntary and private, NOT mandatory and federally regulated. I think that would make it more palatable to everyone involved.

    So those are my idea, wrapped up in a long-winded essay. I welcome reactions, opinions and feedback. Bomani, many thanks for providing this forum.

  2. From Slingshots to Drones… Who Will Abdicate the Blow?

    In your leisure moments, when you dwell on the problems we need to solve, can
    you fathom the immense creativity it took to come up with the mechanics of a gun?

    Slingshots. From long ago deadly slingshots, small and large, came the problem… how to kill, more efficiently. Guns. From which came the current problem of how to kill more… efficiently. Drones. In the years between, from way back then until now, we have also experimented with bombs, grenades, missiles and landmines.

    And in the background, “Thou shalt not kill.”… plus all the non-violent teachings of
    the Torah, the Koran, the Vedas, the Mahatma Ghandi and Rev. Martin Luther King.

    It is said “there are numberless billions of universes” and that “it is rare to be born
    a human.” We’ve been told “Just to be, is a blessing”… and that “to take one life is to annihilate an entire universe.”

    But we are creative beings with free will. So whatever it takes to get what we want, we will invent a way to do it… even if it means wiping out someone’s life. This is the way of living promoted by our media, our governments and our stories. It’s what we pass on to the children. We show and teach babies violence as animated enjoyment, as self-defense and even as ‘preventative’ offense.

    So what does it take to change our M.O.? Who will promote once again the wisdom and the courage to “turn the other cheek”… to abdicate the blow? Who will start the trend and let children know that if someone hits you, you can walk away and not hit back. Who has that much bravery these days. I wonder if I do.

    If someone hit you, could you walk away? If someone killed your beloved, could you not want to see them dead? What about revenge or punishment? Should people who cause harm, be harmed? Those who kill, be killed? If you were governor of the world what would choose? Is punishment ever the answer or even a determent?

    Huge questions to wrestle with when the news is off and the radio is silent. We are fed local and global stories of monstrous killings… by men and by mothers, by the militia, the emotionally disturbed and mentally ill. Mortified, we can’t dwell on these issues one more minute. But, to make even a small dent in the dense traffic of our collective consciousness… in the depths of our solitude, where sanity prevails, we each must submit to this universe our intentions… to stop all violence everywhere.

    Without exception.

  3. Well put, my friend. You have given me the gift of your excellent perspective, again, and I am richer for it.
    I am a very conservative, very independent American and I wholeheartedly agrees with your take on the significant purpose of the 2nd Amendment. As a Reagan-ite I immediately bristled at your assertion that some gun laws were made in fear of the Black Panthers. But I repent of that. I don’t know for sure (Irish Minnesotan that I am) but you’re probably right. That is the M.O. of our government: erode the liberties that threaten their ability to be reelected. I in turn reject any elected official who wants to limit my right to defend myself against inevitable tyranny and would be honored to die to protect your right to defend yourself, my brother.
    I am also an RN who works daily with locked-ward psychiatric patients and I see violent mental illness all the time. At my hospital (a big hospital) we supply a 6 state area with some of the few mental healthcare beds left available. We can treat some 56 adults and children at any given time but we are on no vacancy divert status about 90% of the time. We are packed to bursting but will never make more room to meet the full needs of our communities because there is no money in psychiatric care. And this problem is only getting worse. The Affordable Health Care Act will drastically reduce funding for mental health care this year because psych is a sink hole for money. The mentally ill almost uniformly have no ability to pay for our already dwindling services and they certainly will not get new coverage from ‘Obamacare’ at the expense of flashier essential services like coronary angiography, oncology, trauma surgery, pediatric medicine and even research. The reality of more untreated mental illness and more violence in light of this shortfall is just another reason for us to protect our rights to protect ourselves and to hold our babies and wives and mothers closer than ever.
    Thanks again for the dialogue.
    Peace from my heart in excess.

  4. I have bipolar disorder as a result of ADD and i have autism… i am a civil rights activist for the Disabled and Elderly. i was born this way and is it really fair to my people that Able-ist bastards get to deny us rights because we were born this way? No. it is not. i know some people have no impulse control over those things but i’m not one of those. I can get real close to stabbing someone but i stop because i care for life too much and remember my father’s wise words: “you can replace a thing… but never a life.” Despite reincarnation there will always be only one “you” you are unique and once you are gone you are gone forever. that’s why we grieve over death because there would only and always only be 1 “you”. even in reincarnation its like a chemistry experiment sure your soul is in another body but that body is a new body and will be an entirely different person by adulthood so even if characteristics of a past life continue in another future… that next incarnation will be an entirely different person and may even develop a different personality type. I am an ENFP personality which describes me well as well as a libertarian in politics however if i were reincarnated i could end up a communist and the total opposite of ENFP depending on life events. so yeah i cant even kill an animal without crying & hating myself much less a human being. if i killed a human being even by accident i doubt i’d even have the will to live anymore… thats how much i value life… all life is sacred… well except for bugs and spiders i hate them. sooo creepy. so anyway i own a sword but i dont casually carry it and i only use it when i need it…. someone tried to break into my house and i scared them away with my sword. so the guy was prolly unarmed or didnt have a gun silencer. if i owned a gun it would only be for home defence, sporting, and doomsday preparation supply tool… yes i’m one of those apocalypse guys… but hey you’ll never know when shit hits the fans for earth. hahaaa!!! yeah i’m a precision shooter…. so i specialize in shotguns and rifles. and i like skeet shooting and firing ranges. i dont mind shooting a can off a stump either. it just gives me skills i need for survival. my favorite handgun has to be the Luger P08 9mm edition from ww1 and ww2 and my favorite long gun is the AK-47 Assault Rifle.

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