Calling a Mass Shooter "Mentally Ill" is Not only Wrong, but Harms Disabled Peeps
- by Bri - (CW: mass shootings, deaths, gun violence)
This article took me way too long to write. How could I say something that hasn't already been said about mass shootings? What do I have to contribute on an incident of such blatant and intentional disregard for human life? Others have written brilliant takes, attempting to make sense of such violence. How could I write about this when my own thoughts are so disordered, disturbed, at a loss to concisely explain why does this keep happening?
Until I heard the damning, tired rhetoric: "The white shooter was mentally ill. That's why he shot all those black people."
And I knew I had something to say.
The United States has seen almost 200 mass shootings in just this year alone. The vast majority of mass shooters are white males; while mass shooters of color are immediately labeled as 'terrorists' by the media, white male shooters are consistently proclaimed as "mentally ill" individuals. This is not only mis-representing those of us with real, disabling mental illness, it gives white male shooters a 'pass' for their horrific behaviors. "He was crazy!" "Just another psycho with a gun." And the most damning, "It wasn't his fault; he was mentally ill." Here's why this language is so deeply problematic and rooted in white ableism.
1) Misogyny, racism, ableism, and/or homophobia is NOT mental illness.
Let's start calling the elephant in the room what it is: radicalized and militant misogyny and racism. The media (and those in power) want to maintain the hegemony of white male society, hence their denial in calling radicalized white shooters "homegrown terrorists enacting violence on extreme racist and misogynistic beliefs." This is NOT a mental illness issue. This is a by-product of a toxic society. And finally, FINALLY, the government is starting to make the right changes: Biden directly calling the shooting in Buffalo an act of "hate-filled domestic terrorism", and the domestic terrorism bill passing in the House to allow more federal funds and resources to stop these hate crimes. However, it will take time to see if these changes will provide fruit. And in the meantime the language of "mentally ill" is still the "go-to" label for the media.
The number of white far-right extremists committing acts of mass violence significantly outweighs the number of every other kind of US mass shooter (Here's the stats on it: Number of mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and May 2022, by shooter's race or ethnicity ). These shooters often leave "manifestos" explaining their radicalized thoughts about why they think their violence against People of Color or women or a particular religion are justified. These mass shootings are borne out of an extreme hatred, blame and anger at a specific marginalized group. And these acts, when repeated on our 24-hour news cycle, embolden other white male extremists to take action (More information: Why Nearly All Mass Shooters Are Men). These men are rationally-thinking (even if the rationality is hate-fueled), and very cognizant of their actions. While one might permit them to be considered "mentally ill" by the most broad definition of the word, their actions clearly show otherwise.
But one thing we've learned from these incidents is that it's incredibly difficult for the public to make sense of this violence. So we call them "crazy", "insane", "psycho", because it helps us ascribe a sort of organization and understanding to something most reasonable people can't comprehend: extreme and radicalized violence that results in brutal deaths.
Here's the rub: radicalized racism and sexism IS NOT A MENTAL ILLNESS. In fact, it is a method of violence that CAUSES extreme mental illness and stress in minority populations (The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health Declaration of Racism as a Mental Health Crisis).
This is one BIG reason why we need to stop calling white shooters "mentally ill." They are perpetrators in causing mental health issues and illness.
2) Calling white shooters 'mentally ill' harms peeps who ACTUALLY HAVE mental illnesses.
The main issue here is stereotypes. Calling white shooters "mentally ill" makes people believe that those with mental illness are the ones perpetuating gun violence ( Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms ). But this is patently and outright untrue. As many of us already know, those of us with mental health issues are more likely to be the victims of crime and shootings, rather than the perpetrators of them. Here is an excellent breakdown of these statistics in relation to mass shootings: Make Real Change On Gun Violence: Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Health Disabilities.
Actual crime against people with mental illness tends to be under-studied, under-reported, and under-processed by the court system. But as one source puts it: "Rather than addressing the domestic radicalization of mass murderers, media outlets focus mainly on wrapping a gift for an insanity defense in a nice bow" (Barbarin, 2018). It's easier to dismiss white shooters as "mentally ill." As Barbarin states,
Though this cycle of white supremacy using ableism as a tool to infiltrate and influence mainstream discourse may be easiest to pinpoint after mass shootings, it has worked its way into our everyday rhetoric. The history of eugenics in this country that inspired Nazism in Germany remains strong. - Barbarin, 2018
AND THIS IS THE CRUX OF THE WHOLE ISSUE. The media and government use ableist language and discussion to give far-right white shooters a pass and to distance them (the white shooters) from their origins: extreme racial domestic terrorism. This then frees the government/media from making actual change regarding domestic terrorism (which is a product of a white supremacist hegemony), and allows them greater control over marginalized groups.
Then come more laws to control and harm disabled peeps. And People of Color. And Immigrants. See where this goes?
The bottom line is, using the "mentally ill" label with a mass shooter is ablest, and, quite honestly, hurts all of us.
I highly recommend reading Barbarin's article. It succinctly explicates the intersectionality of the issue to reach the core societal problems that fuels these horrific incidents of violence.
3) Breakdown C.C.A.R.S. Analysis
Take a look at my C.C.A.R.S. definition here.
Incident: Mass Shootings (Specifically the recent racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, perpetrated by a white domestic terrorist).
Classism: According to a recent public health study, "Counties with growing levels of income inequality are more likely to experience mass shootings. We assert that one possibility for this finding is that income inequality fosters an environment of anger and resentment that ultimately leads to violence," (Kwon, 2019). When we talk about mass shootings, we're often talking about domestic terrorism. Income inequality is one of the conditions that creates extremist views that lead to racially motivated shootings.
Capitalism: Mass shootings make money for our 24-hour news outlets. The more violent and gruesome the incident, the more revenue mainstream media rakes in. This also perpetuates MORE mass shootings (i.e. potential white shooters seeing the mass shootings on the media and becoming confident enough to perpetuate such an incident themselves.) Thus the cycle of shootings and revenue continues. This media cycle also leads to large sales in guns and weapons after each event (Anuradha, 2017). (Mass Shootings: The Role of the Media in Promoting Generalized Imitation.) The profit to be gained from such atrocities is disturbing and despicable.
Ableism: I feel we covered this issue in this post. Here are some related readings that are also about ableism and mass shootings that I recommend:
On Mass Shootings and Mental Disability, by Andrew Pulrang
[ableism] Every time I call something like this out, people say... [Twitter Thread], by @UntoNuggan
Racism: Again I feel this was covered, especially by Barbarin's article. READ IT. Please. Ultimately the guise of "mental illness" in mass shootings is how the white hegemony not only continues to perpetuate racism, but in fact approves of racial terrorism. By not addressing the racist radicalization as the source of mass shootings, white hegemony can maintain their hierarchical dominance over society/culture. Just... read Barbarin's article. It's much better written than what I'm spitting out.
Sexism/Homophobia/LGBTQA+ Discrimination: We know quite well that mass shootings aren't limited to those upholding racist or sexist ideologies. The Orlando shooting of a nightclub was clear evidence of that. Mass shootings are "A Profoundly Masculine Act", according to the California Law Review, and rarely are the antagonists women.
The complex interactions of toxic masculinity and the far-right radicalization seem to produce these extreme ideologies. Unfortunately, as for all the marginalized groups mentioned in this article, people are still dying from the product of this social rot.
ADAPT. (2022). ADAPT Denounces Blaming of Mass Shootings on Mental Health. American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today.
Ahmed, Saeed. (May 15, 2022). It's 19 weeks into the year and America has already seen 198 mass shootings. NPR.Org.
Anuradha, Gayathri. (Oct 30, 2017). Why Do Gun Sales In the US Spike After Mass Shootings? Stanford University Law School.
Autistic Self Advocacy Network. (2022). Make Real Change On Gun Violence: Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Health Disabilities. Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
Barbarin, Imani. (Nov 19, 2018). Ableism Is the Go-To Disguise for White Supremacy. Too Many People Are Falling for It. Rewire News Group.
Issa, Yasmine. (Apr, 2019). “A Profoundly Masculine Act”: Mass Shootings, Violence Against Women, and the Amendment That Could Forge a Path Forward. California Law Review, 107(2).
Kwon, R., Cabrera, J.F. (2019). Income inequality and mass shootings in the United States. BMC Public Health 19, 1147.
Martin, Michel, and Emma Bowman. (Mar 27, 2021). Why Nearly All Mass Shooters Are Men. NPR.Org.
Martinez, Octavio N. (2022). The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health Declaration of Racism as a Mental Health Crisis. The Hogg Foundation.
Meindl, J. N., & Ivy, J. W. (2017). Mass Shootings: The Role of the Media in Promoting Generalized Imitation. American journal of public health, 107(3), 368–370.
Metzl, J. M., & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental illness, mass shootings, and the politics of American firearms. American journal of public health, 105(2), 240–249.
Pulrang, Andrew. (2022). On Mass Shootings and Mental Disability. Center for Disability Rights.
Sparrow/Liz [@UntoNuggan]. (Jun 8, 2018). [ableism] Every time I call something like this out, people say…[Twitter Thread]. Twitter.com.
Statista Research Department. (May 16, 2022). Number of mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and May 2022, by shooter's race or ethnicity. Statista.