The Racist History of Red Flag Laws

Before we get to the racism disguised by these altruistic red flag laws, let's examine why there's such a call for them in the first place.

The idea that mass shootings are based on mental health issues seems sensible, as we would like to think nobody in his right mind can commit these atrocities, but that line of thought is as wrong as those who choose to blame the gun.  Psychologists understand there is a perfect storm of strain and stress that can cause anybody to go on a rampage when certain factors are culminated and met.

Academic circles know that mental health is often wrongly blamed for these tragedies, mostly by the mass media, who like to diagnose mass shooters themselves postmortem.  However, statistical research shows that less than 5% of those suffering from any sort of mental illness ever become violent.  Some emerging studies go on to argue that even the most severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia actually reduce the likelihood of violent behavior relative to the non-suffering population.  What is even worse is that those with these serious mental illnesses are way more likely to be the victims of violence instead.

Mental health clinicians do not want the responsibility that red flag laws would place upon their professions.  There is a consensus that because psychiatry is based on observation and not action, they are being set up to fail.  Further experiments prove that psychiatrists are less able to predict an individual's future behavior, specifically who might become violent, than ordinary people with no mental health education or background.  Since mass shootings, particularly rampage killings done by those with mental illnesses, are so rare, it's quite impossible to retrieve any pattern of data to use to predict future outcomes.

How does racism come into this?  In the 1960s and '70s, when mass shootings began to show signs of spiking, questions were raised like this 1968 Psychology Today headline, "Who Should Have a Gun?"  Mental health professionals were trying to link gun violence to mental illness.  In the later part of 1968, psychiatric journals began adding "hostility" and "aggression" to definitions of mental conditions like schizophrenia despite their own research showing a weak link at best.

Turns out the FBI was already secretly plotting to use the equivalent of red flag laws to prevent those in the black American Civil Rights movements from having legal access to firearms, claiming them as too mentally ill and prone to aggressive and violent behaviors.  The FBI used scholarly articles like this one, "The Protest Psychosis" (1968), which argued that black power movements drive black men insane and cause attacks on Caucasians.  It went even farther to assert that black men with schizophrenia are more hostile than white men suffering from the same mental condition.  Claims were made that this is because of "delusional beliefs that their civil rights were being compromised or violated."

FBI documents that were declassified and published in the 2010 book The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease uncovered how FBI profilers in the 1960s were diagnosing black rights leaders like Malcolm X with "pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia" as a way to prevent their attempts to legally obtain firearms.  Likewise, there was a huge push in medical journals for psychiatrists to address "the urgent social issue" of firearms as a response to "the threat of civil disorder."

Back to 2019, we see calls for red flag laws as a way to prevent the lone white shooter from going on a rampage.  However, using mental health illnesses as a baseline for this brings the same racial profiling problems as in the 1960s.  This is because black Americans are disproportionately prone to mental health issues, undiagnosed or not.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. HHS), adult black Americans are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult white Americans, and that number increases based on where they fall relative to the poverty line.  While white men may commit suicide at higher rates, black men seem to have more failed attempts in general.

Asking mental health professionals to make calls on the potential risks of individuals with firearms will also face racial scrutiny, as less than 3% of these clinicians are black themselves.

Unless red flag laws are clearly written to apply to white American men only, they will disportionately be used to confiscate firearms from black men in the United States, which replays their racist history in the first place.  The proposed federal laws, which have already been passed in a handful of states, are proposed to help reduce mass shootings but so far have had zero effect while ignoring the circumstances that cause mass shootings in the first place — which are well within psychiatry's ability to actually help.

Follow Taylor Day on Twitter and Facebook, and look out for her upcoming book that explores U.S. mass shootings.