In the wake of last weekend’s tragic shootings, President Trump did what he does best: stoked fear and cast blame. He proclaimed that “we must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people, not only get treatment, but when necessary, involuntary confinement.”
There are two things wrong with the idea of involuntary commitment as a solution to gun violence. First, focusing on people with identifiable mental disabilities won’t help. The data is clear: mental disability is not the primary cause of gun violence. Second, making it easier to commit people against their will would repeat one of the great wrongs of the last 150 years. It will rob innocent people of their most basic civil liberty: the day-to-day freedom to live on your own and make your own decisions about whether and what kind of medical treatment to receive.
In its modern form, the institutionalization of people with disabilities first emerged in the nineteenth century. Initially, the goal for mental institutions was to provide treatment, and quickly return patients to the community. However, facilities soon became warehouses for the same people for years and sometimes decades as they failed to deliver the quick cures they had once promised.
These problems were further exacerbated by the eugenics movement, which dramatically expanded the institutionalization of people with mental disabilities. Eugenics held that humanity should be improved by “removing” “inferior” stock from the country including, Jews, all people of color, Catholics, southern and Eastern Europeans, and people with mental and physical disabilities. The movement’s great victories were immigration laws largely based on racism and the involuntary sterilization and forced institutionalization of people with disabilities. These measures disproportionately targeted low-income Americans and, in the case of sterilization, women. […]