Gun-shy: Firearms and the Mentally Ill

I opened the door when she knocked. Given our last exchange–during which I had to haul her by the hand out of my place of work while she shouted about how my new boyfriend was part of The Conspiracy (corporate, federal, state, personal) against her–I was wary. But she was my mother after all. At 24, I’d been on my own for 7 years and a few months before she had moved 1800 miles to be near me. Not my idea. But she showed up just in time for me to realize something that I suspected was wrong really was seriously wrong.

The details are hazy. She pushed her way into the apartment, talking inhumanly fast—I don’t remember what she said, or what I said. I just know that within two minutes of her being there, she was so enraged at me that she had me flat on the floor and was pummeling me with her fists. My mother was about five inches shorter than I, but she was strong, and the element of surprise is a powerful strategy. But in her case this was no strategy. It was craziness, erupting, as it does. Willy-nilly.

Her inability to control what I was saying, convince me of what she was saying, or create a truth that I would be convinced by—well, the frustration was too much. She attacked the one person in the world she might actually love—in whatever way that happened for her—and the one person she could not afford to lose.

There was also the time she tried to grab the gun off the police officer’s holster. That one got her thrown in jail, and then transferred to the nearest mental hospital for an evaluation.

I’ve written about her on this blog before, but here my point is: mentally ill people cannot be held accountable for what they do. They are sick. Let’s take care of them. Let’s not throw them out on the street with no resources and no insurance.

And let’s not make it easy for them to buy guns. Can’t we all agree not to arm them with the firepower to kill themselves or someone else in an outburst of—often fleeting—rage or despair?

Fast forward thirty years to a few weeks ago. The suggestion on the table is this: “Shall we put something on our website that urges families to remove guns from the house if a mother is suffering from depression?”

I sit on the board of a remarkable organization that supports women and families dealing with maternal mental health issues, as well as educating medical practitioners and legal professionals about PMDs. When the suggestion is made, heads immediately start to nod. It makes sense. We should come out with a statement about that.

Then someone says, “We need to be careful. There are people out there who might be very offended by that. Red cape to the bull.”


I  live in a remarkably insular world because I don’t know anyone who would think it a bad idea for a concerned family member to remove a gun from a sick woman who regularly thinks about suicide and whose death would leave a child motherless.

gun image

I believe that people don’t have the whole picture. I mean, who has the whole picture? I definitely do not have the whole picture. I could not possess it even if I read every book, blog, and bullshit tabloid 24 / 7 for the rest of my life. So let’s all agree: no one has the whole picture. I know some stuff and you know some stuff. I’ll ask you what you know about and you can ask me, if you want.

What I do know a teensy bit more than some people about is mental illness. I was highly motivated to read everything I could get my hands on about the topic and then there was my front row seat.

My schizophrenic mother never attacked me again physically after that day. (Research has shown that most psychotic people show less tendencies towards violence than the average population.) The things she did on a regular basis that made my life a hell of tormented guilt, love, and anger just took other forms from then on. But what if she’d had an elegant little pistol in her pocket that day?

Would her rage and despair at the horribleness of it all at that moment have led her to start blazing away?

She didn’t have so much as a set of brass knuckles, fortunately, and my friend Michael woke from his nap to drag my mom off me and escort her firmly, but gently, from the apartment.

I’ve read recent studies about suicide. There is strong evidence that the majority of suicide attempts are one offs. I’m not sure how they do that study since many of the study cases are dead. But it involved many many interviews with people who have survived a suicide attempt. Some have tried multiple times. Some think about suicide often. But apparently most people who have attempted suicide, according to this study, did so only once. They lived to tell the story, and never tried again. Those people did not have guns.

Okay so a background check would not pick up on the random dude whose girlfriend is going to trash his heart and he’s going to try to end it all. But the patient with a history of hospitalization for depression, or schizophrenia, or whatever it is, will be a red flag and maybe the decision to provide this person with a firearm will be tabled for the indefinite future. I would really like that.

The 2nd Amendment was written when muskets were the extent of a citizen’s firepower. Now semi-automatic weapons and guns with exploding bullets (I’ll defer to you people out there who know about guns—I don’t) have been cleverly invented, manufactured, and put in the hands of regular people. The meek, the bold. The sane, the not-sane. The angry, the mollified. The upstanding, the ignominious. We don’t care. It’s our right to own a gun. It’s our right to protect ourselves. But it’s our right—and duty—to protect innocent people too.

Is anyone suggesting we take all guns away? I mean anyone credible? Most of the suggested legislation is about slowing things down. Background checks.

My friend Frank might have killed himself anyway. They found his body in his car with a hole in his head blown out by the shotgun he had purchased at K-Mart earlier that day. The receipt was in the bag, which was in the back seat. After that, we realized he’d been planning his exit for a while. He’d managed to say goodbye to most of us the night before, without telling us what he was doing.

But if the impulse of that moment—if his horrible confusion and sorrow about his uncertain identity, his troubling (to him) desire to wear my clothes on Halloween, and any woman’s panty-hose under his work pants on any other day of the year, his uninterested family, the homelessness he did not confide in us till someone found his sleeping bag in the storeroom at the restaurant where we both worked—if that impulse had passed in the time it took for him to be able to buy that gun, he may have lived until now. He may have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement, wearing green tights and flowing skirts with pride at all the parades and making drawling, sarcastic speeches that made everyone laugh. He may have come back the next night, the night after his goodbyes, flicked his hair, grinned his sad, sly grin, and picked up where he’d left off.

Frank as me for Halloween, 1981.
Frank as me for Halloween, 1981.




  1. ” Can’t we all agree not to arm them with the firepower to kill themselves” – So you’re saying that a person who suffers horribly isn’t allowed to stop it? That we shouldn’t have an easy way out of a life that was forced on us?

    Suicide prevention is bizarre to me. The logic behind it sounds too much like gaslighting and abusing – “We know what’s best for you. You really want to live. We will show you how and you will learn to love it.”

    Why can’t we let it go? Why can’t we respect their wishes and give them a clean death? (Preferably, not from gun. Assisted suicide is a noble idea).

    I almost killed myself 4 years ago. I now lack access to guns. My life is better, but I still regret. Some people really want to die. You can’t ‘help’ suicidal people because suicide is not a problem. You can only communicate with suicidal people once you accept and respect their wishes.

    We never chose to be born. Let us chose to die.

    1. Dear Brain, I am so grateful for your comment. I agree absolutely that people should be able to choose when to die. But I also know that many illnesses are treatable. I have known someone crippled by anxiety leave the shadow of that curse to live a really vibrant, happy life. A good example is women with post-partum depression (or ante-partum depression, also common). This is one in seven women. That depression is treatable 100% and it has a shelf life for most–in other words, it ends. My argument is that to allow her access to a gun when in a year she’ll be loving her baby and feeling what just a year ago she could not–hope, happiness, connection–would be criminal. The women who suffer from PMDs are not more likely to be ambivalent about motherhood — it hits all women equally, those who anticipated the birth with joy. If someone suffers from chronic depression and really wants it to end, I would agree that assisted suicide in a loving, supportive environment would be best. Honestly–no judgment from me about the rights or wrongs. I just really think that many many suicides are one time deals. That may not have been true for you and I am so sorry you regret your inability to carry it out. Frank, had he lived, would have seen the groundswell of the LGBTQ movement. He may have realized he was not alone, and that we all would have been there for him. He just did not give it time. Honestly his determination was great and I do not think he would have changed his mind even with background checks, but I like to think someone like him might.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful and honest reply. I am not sure all situations are the exact same so maybe in an ideal world there would be gun background checks AND assisted suicide. Best, Spiralwoman

      1. I’m only for making guns available for suicide because there’s no AS. In a world for AS, suicide by gun is highly immoral. It leaves a traumatic mess. AS would allow people kill themselves not using such traumatic methods.

        Who are we to decide for a person if they really want to live or die, though? The only to have an open communication with suicidal people is to let them killthemselves in a clean way. Many suicidal people are ambivalent, and in fact it’s this anti-suicide attitude that makes it worse for us. If people know they can always apply for AS no matter what, then they’ll better facing life. They will know they can take a risk, they can go another day because when it gets really bad there’s a way out for them. We need to help people understand what they want, not tell them what they want.

        Of course, assisted suicide available for everyone means that support networks also must be available. The fact suicide leaves others in pain isn’t a moral obligation not to die (We still reject people sexually all the time), but we can’t ignore it anyway.

  2. I hear what you are saying. I agree AS might encourage depressed people to go another day, knowing it won’t be impossible to leave when it’s time. What do you think about my comments about some depression being treatable, though, and people coming out the other side and living long, fulfilled lives? Giving a woman with PPD assisted suicide options without providing her with safe medication and other modalities of treatment would–in my mind–be immoral. Thank you again for reading. XO

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