Last week, another Republican congressman, Howard Coble of North Carolina, agreed that "it's more of a mental health problem than a gun problem right now." And last Friday, when the National Rifle Association broke its silence on the Sandy Hook massacre, the group's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, called for "an active national database of the mentally ill."
Psychiatrically informed policies aimed at controlling people rather than weapons are popular in the wake of mass shootings, especially among those who rightly worry that gun restrictions will unfairly burden law-abiding Americans while failing to prevent future attacks. Yet treating gun violence as "a mental health problem" presents similar dangers.
An "active national database of the mentally ill" clearly would not have stopped Lanza, who used guns legally purchased by his mother. Even if he had bought the guns himself, it appears he would have passed a background check because did not meet the criteria for rejection.
Federal law prohibits gun ownership by anyone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution." Neither seems to have been the case with Lanza.
Acquaintances reported that Lanza might have had Asperger's syndrome. That label, which soon won't even count as a mental disorder anymore, is not much more informative than saying he was a shy, socially inept loner (which people who knew him also said).
It seems safe to assume that someone who murders randomly selected first-graders is psychologically abnormal, but that is not the same as saying that a specific "mental illness" explains his behavior. Given the subjective, amorphous nature of psychiatric diagnoses, we might as well say the devil made him do it.
In any event, mental health professionals are notoriously bad at predicting which of the world's many misfits, cranks and oddballs will become violent. "Over 30 years of commentary, judicial opinion and scientific review argue that predictions of danger lack scientific rigor," notes University of Georgia law professor Alexander Scherr in a 2003 Hastings Law Journal article. "The sharpest critique finds that mental health professionals perform no better than chance at predicting violence, and perhaps perform even worse."