As the news broke on December 2, there was fear at Access Living and within the disability community around the country that people with disabilities were the target of this attack. It appears now that people with disabilities were not specifically targeted. Whether the victims are disabled or non-disabled, the killings in California are yet another horrible tragedy that has led to tremendous suffering.
In the wake of shootings that involve multiple victims, blame is often placed on people with psychiatric disabilities. Commentary following mass shootings often attacks mental illness, portraying it as the cause behind the violence. Such commentary is based on fear rather than facts. People with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than to commit violent acts. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 33,000 firearms-related deaths in the United States in 2013. Only a small percentage of these deaths were connected to people with mental illness.
Such commentary also threatens the health and independence of people with psychiatric disabilities. U.S. Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania has introduced mental health legislation and he appears to be using mass shootings to raise support for the legislation. He claims the bill will increase safety and reduce mass shootings.* Yet, mass shootings that involve mental illness are rare in the context of all gun violence. Also, having mental illness does not indicate whether someone will engage in gun violence. Legislation such as the Murphy Bill and blaming mass shootings on mental illness reinforce the stigma against people with psychiatric disabilities, make it harder for them to participate in mainstream communities, and do not address the issues at the heart of gun violence.
In the words of Robert Bernstein, president and executive director, Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, “ . . . leaders in Congress must stop attempting to distract us from the nation’s widespread epidemic of gun violence by capitalizing on stereotypes that people with mental illness are dangerous individuals. Their tactics not only fail to meaningfully address the very serious problem of gun violence, but they further demean people with mental illness who are trying to move from the sidelines of their communities and into the mainstream.”**
*(For a disability critique of the Murphy Bill, please visit this link: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/03/mental-illness-an-easy-scapegoat-for-those-who-wont-point-fingers-elsewhere )
**(The Hill, http://thehill.com/opinion/letters/261884-republicans-are-gunning-for-mental-health-scapegoat )