Right now, HB 1253-2014, a bill to take the right to jury trial away from mentally ill persons whom the state is seeking to ‘hold,’ is before the Colorado Legislature. The bill would also remove the phrase ‘imminent danger,’ instead requiring that people represent an undefined and vague ‘danger’ to themselves or others in order to be involuntarily committed. Both modifications present serious threats to the civil liberties and personal autonomy of people with mental illnesses.
This bill fits into a larger story, about how those with mental illnesses remain the most ill-treated and abused of any group in America. While as a country we’ve examined racism, sexism and classism, we have yet to examine our prejudices about the mentally ill. The mentally ill often find their rights eroded and their concerns dismissed; this bill both continues a long history of prejudice and develops it into a narrative about “controlling violence.”
But it’s also a great illustration of why we should stand up for the rights of all individuals. There can be no exceptions to liberty. Any exceptions to respecting the rights of the individual become quickly, easily and inevitably enlarged by the state.
This Colorado bill forced the NRA to learn that lesson.
Previously, the NRA was not very concerned with the rights of the mentally ill. In fact, after the Newtown shooting, the NRA adopted a distinct policy of vilifying the mentally ill in order to protect gun ownership. Wayne LaPierre opposed a national gun registry but supported a national database of the mentally ill, who he referred to as “lunatics” and “monsters.” It was clear that to the NRA, the rights of the mentally ill were ‘worth less’ than the rights of gun owners.
There is one problem with this approach: encouraging the government to take away liberties actually…wait for it…. encourages the government to take away liberties.
Legally, commitment to a mental health facility removes the possibility of gun ownership for that individual. And since 1 in 4 Americans could be diagnosed with mental illness in any given year, we are no longer talking about a marginal group that the NRA can ignore. Suddenly, it becomes clear that endangering the liberties of one group of people meant that all liberties are threatened.
The message is that we have an answer to the question ‘Whose rights can safely be taken? The answer is: nobody’s. If liberties can be taken away from one group, they can be taken away from all. The path to tyranny is a slippery slope and the state has a tobaggon. Gun owners and the mentally ill, and any other group of individuals, have the same rights, and they must be protected together.