Involuntary Commitment Won’t Stop Gun Violence

Gun ControlBy Ari Ne’eman

One of the proudest moments of the disability rights movement came on Sept. 17, 1987. After over a decade of scandals, exposés, and advocacy, the state of New York finally closed down Willowbrook State School. As the last of the people with disabilities who suffered under Willowbrook’s horrific conditions left for life in the community, many saw an opportunity to plan for a brighter future.

With the rise of Medicaid Home and Community Based Services, people with disabilities were increasingly gaining support in the community rather than being forced into segregated lives in institutions. Today most people with disabilities are supported in their own homes or communities. While more work remains to be done, Americans with disabilities enjoy more rights, greater autonomy, and higher quality of life than ever before.

On Monday, Donald Trump proposed turning back the clock. “We’re going to have to start talking about mental institutions, because a lot of folks in this room closed their mental institutions also,” Trump said in remarks to a group of the nation’s governors. “You know, in the old days we had mental
institutions. We had a lot of them. And you could nab somebody like this, because they … knew something was off.”

Trump’s remarks are part of a pattern. Across the country, elected officials have responded to gun violence by calling for restricting the rights of people with mental illness and returning to outdated practices of segregating them and other people with disabilities. Shortly after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the Broward County sheriff called for expanding the state’s involuntary commitment law, the Baker Act, to make it easier to involuntarily commit a person based on their social media postings.

Current law allows for involuntary commitment where authorities can show that an individual is a danger to themselves or others. This standard is the result of generations of advocacy to address the over-use of institutionalization and the abusive way involuntary commitment statutes have been employed in the past. Even today, many states are too quick to resort to involuntary commitment. Florida has a track record of overusing the Baker Act, particularly on children with developmental disabilities. In Miami-Dade County, the Baker Act is used more than three times every school day. This and similar practices subject students with disabilities to coercion and segregation without offering any meaningful benefit to them or public safety.

Mass shootings demand a meaningful policy response. But a closer look at the data shows that segregating people with mental illness and bringing back outdated and dangerous long-term institutionalization is not the way. Indeed, a comprehensive analysis from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law found no meaningful correlation between the availability of psychiatric hospital beds and homicides involving firearms. Mental illness has very little predictive value for determining an individual’s likelihood of committing a violent crime.

But for the president, it’s easier to offer knee-jerk, uninformed opinions rather than to do the hard work of formulating fact-driven policies that refrain from scapegoating entire communities.

Ari Ne’eman is an advisor for the ACLU

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. John Hobbs

    “But for the president, it’s easier to offer knee-jerk, uninformed opinions”

    You give what you’ve got. The president is misguided, but he brings up a real issue.

    I recall some of the worst of the institutions. My long time rhythm guitarist was committed to a state institution at 16 years old because he liked guys too much. However, today we are faced with people who need in-patient care, but no facilities to serve them and no serviceable  mechanism to place those who can’t care for themselves into one if it existed.

      1. Eric Gelber

        There is a difference between involuntary commitment and having facilities for in-patient care.

        Exactly. The mental health system is woefully underfunded. Access to voluntary treatment needs to be addressed. But proposals to expand involuntary commitment standards—like AB 2156, recently introduced in the California Legislature—are not the answer. They are misguided distractions in response to incidents of gun violence.

  2. Robert Canning

    Thanks to the Vanguard for reprinting this article. I think there are some specific points about California that ought to be made.

    1) As far as I know, the state’s involuntary commitment statute – commonly known as 5150 – is rarely used to detain individuals with intellectual disabilities compared to those who, due to a mental illness, cannot provide for their well-being (grave disability), or are a danger to others or to themselves.

    2) California has a law which allows the weapons someone owns to be sequestered after order by a judge who has been petitioned by immediate family or law enforcement. This can be for up to a year and needs a full court hearing to allow the person to get the weapons back.

    3) California also has domestic violence laws that restrict purchases and possession under certain circumstances for those convicted of domestic violence.

    In California, there has been a recognition that in many cases of gun violence, time is of the essence and that getting the firearms out of the hands of a suicidal person or someone with a history of domestic violence can prevent death and/or injury. And it’s always important to remember that most people who die by firearm are suicidal – not homicidal. Of the almost 45,000 persons each year who die by suicide, more than half use a firearm.

    California has some of the strongest gun violence control laws in the country. And our state’s rates of suicide have been well below the national average for more than a decade. My hunch is that these laws are an important piece of this.

    A good source of information about these types of laws and who they apply to is the Giffords Center:


  3. Tia Will


    There is a difference between involuntary commitment and having facilities for in-patient care.”

    True as written, but there is a lack of facilities for both types of need. When my son was suicidal and knew he needed hospitalization, we were informed there were no spaces available. Ironically enough, he found his own space in a regional inpatient care facility when a friend he had made during a previous hospitalization texted him that a patient was being discharged that afternoon freeing a bed for him. Ahhh… the resourcefulness of teenagers!


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