photo by Ben Sutherland
Fashion designer Kenneth Cole managed to insult two large groups of Americans with a single billboard: gun owners and Americans with mental illness.
About one in three American adults owns at least one firearm, and about one in five of us experiences some form of mental illness, chronic or otherwise, in a given year. That’s a lot of people to disrespect in an attempt to add to the opportunistic propaganda chorus that claims tough new handgun laws would be a magic bullet to make all of us safer.
The billboard in question appeared along Manhattan’s West Side Highway, and Cole also posted a picture to his Twitter feed. The text read “Over 40M Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care… All can access guns. – Kenneth Cole #GunReform #AreYouPuttingUsOn.” It is not the first time the designer has used his brand as a platform for political messaging, nor the first time Cole has drawn criticism for doing so. But this particular message seemed particularly tone deaf given that only gun owners were meant as a target.
Attempting to link mental illness to gun violence is not new, but it is not valid either. A diagnosis of mental illness, by itself, is seldom predictive of violent behavior, and the bulk of the risk associated with such diagnoses is for self-injury or suicide. Indeed, people with mental illnesses are much more likely than the general population to become the victims of violent crime, though popular perception still has not caught up with this data.
The American Psychiatric Association promptly issued a statement calling the billboard “shocking” and “a disappointing misrepresentation of the facts [that] only serves to further stigmatize those suffering from mental illness.” Cole clarified on Twitter that the ad was not meant to contribute to this stigma, but many of the replies to his tweet made clear that it did so regardless of intent. By last week, a campaign of phone calls, emails and tweets convinced the company to take the billboard down.
Beyond the gratuitous swipe at those who suffer from behavioral health issues, Cole’s billboard missed the mark where gun ownership is concerned as well.
There is no doubt that America has a problem with gun violence, as it does with many sorts of violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,636 deaths resulted from firearms in 2013 (the latest year for which data is available), and 11,208 of those were homicides. These deaths are appalling, and bona fide techniques to address the problems that cause them are worth considering.
But most of the root causes of violence, whether committed with handguns or otherwise, will not be addressed by any sort of regulation that could plausibly make it into law. A new law will not stop unjustified shootings of civilians by police, for instance. And it almost certainly will not stop shootings of police by civilians, either, since violent criminals are not deterred by gun laws.
I am not a handgun owner, for the record. Neither am I a hunter or a member of the National Rifle Association. I just don’t think we will solve our problems with more anti-gun propaganda.
Nor do I think the answer is to play musical chairs with our prison population - though the Obama administration evidently disagrees. The Justice Department recently announced with fanfare a new push to put white-collar criminals in prison. At the same time, the administration and its sympathizers have argued for, and in a few cases secured, the release of what they call “nonviolent drug offenders.” That phrase is essentially a rebranding of the people formerly called “pushers” and “mules.” The reason we started sending those people to prison for long stretches in the first place was because of the social havoc they helped create in the towns and neighborhoods where they operated with impunity two or three decades ago.
Reform of our existing drug laws to take most of the profit out of the drug trade would do far more to get pushers, and the problems they cause, off our streets for good than reducing their sentences will. For now, I have trouble seeing the logic of putting them back into circulation without such reform.
Many polls about gun ownership include a question about whether a gun in the house makes someone feel safer. But given an administration that is firmly anti-handgun and pro-sentencing reform, there may be a more relevant question: Will it make you feel safer to have bankers take the place of pushers in our prisons?
The sources of violence in American society are complicated and deeply rooted in our history and culture. They will not be solved by preventing peaceful citizens from owning guns, any more than by demonizing the more than 40 million Americans with various forms of mental illness, almost none of whom are any more prone to violence than the rest of us.