Gun laws and psychiatric surveillance

If you live in New York state and go to see a therapist about anger management problems, there is a possibility you may lose your deer rifle and go into a police data base of potentially dangerous people.

New York’s new gun-control law requires therapists and social workers to report to county mental health directors whether they believe a patient is dangerous.  That information will go into a state data base, which would be used to confiscate gun owners’ weapons.

mental_health-220x120I would not go to a therapist if I did not think I could trust him or her to keep what I confided in confidence.  I would not trust a therapist if I thought the therapist was going to report what I said to the police.  The unintended consequence of such a law is that people most in need of therapy will not seek it.

Human beings have free will.  That means human behavior is unpredictable.  But New York state law puts the burden of predicting human behavior on therapists, but does not allow them to use their own judgment as to what to do.  A therapist has options if a patient seems dangerously violent—to increase the patient’s medications, to notify people who may be at-risk, to start proceedings to have the patient committed to a mental institution and, yes, to notify the police if that seems necessary.

Simply by the law of averages, someday somebody who is in therapy is going to commit a violent crime with a gun.  No therapist wants to be in the position of not having notified the authorities in advance that the person is dangerous.  The incentive will be to notify the authorities even if there is only a slight possibility of danger.

A conservative friend of mine pointed out that the same incentive applies to prosecutors and judges, and is nothing new.  But prosecutors and judges have to justify their decisions by actual evidence.  Therapists make a subjective judgment and don’t have to prove they’re right.

Even if there were an accurate predictive science of psychology, as in the movie and Philip K. Dick short story “Minority Report”, there still would be a problem in denying you of your legal rights not because of what you had done, but because of what someone thinks you might do.  There are people in prison who have served their sentences, but who are not released because some psychiatrist thinks the person will be a recidivist.

The basic principle of liberty under law, as affirmed in England’s Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1688 and the U.S. Constitution in Article One, Section 9, is that the government can punish you only if you have broken a law and that you have a right to know the specific law you are accused of breaking.  Another principle of liberty under law is presumption of innocence.  The prosecution has to prove you have broken the law.

When we look at the old Soviet Union, and how psychiatry was abused to punish political dissidents who had broken no law, we ought to be wary of making therapists agents of the police.


Click on NY Gun Law May Discourage Mental Health Therapy for Those Who Need It for a report by CBS News.

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