Schizophrenics and Guns


He was 35 and tall and thin, with beige hair and a rare grin he claimed only I could elicit.  He enjoyed seeing me. He always came with a knapsack, because he didn’t really trust the other people in the residence where he lived.  He probably had reason to feel that way, for things had been stolen from him before.  Things like medications.  He reported these things to the pharmacy involved.  Both they and I believed him.  After all, these things happen.  He had not abused anything known to us.  Besides, medications are frequently stolen.

The diagnosis was schizophrenia, that too-often debilitating disease that hits at least about 1% of the population and that is still generally considered manageable but incurable.  He was actually doing pretty well, living in a residence and “stable” after countless hospitalizations.  I asked him about his plans for the future.  He told me he had been attending information sessions about an interesting course at a local college.  Now I knew that local colleges, this one in particular, were famous for providing “practical” education.  I had even heard of a bachelor’s degree in auto body work. He told me he wanted to learn to make guns.  I tried not to appear nervous here, but I was impressed that he could read my emotions well enough to tell I was worried.

“Don’t worry, Dr. G.  I am not going to hurt anybody and I don’t want to kill myself.  You must worry a lot about that because you ask me every time.” Good — he was smart about that.  But what could happen if his medicines were stolen before I could replace them?  In his distant past, he had some real troubles with “false beliefs,” worrying that criminals were out to get him.  What if he believed that, and tried to shoot someone?  I could not ask him that, I knew he would tell me it would never happen – but I knew it could.  “I really like hunting animals.  Little ones, not bears or anything.  Squirrels, but that was a long time ago.  There are lots of squirrels and things like that around here.”  He went on.  He was exhibiting more insight and understanding than I had ever heard from him.

“I like the insides of the gun and how it works and I want to learn how to make them.  I did like the feeling of shooting a little animal, because it meant I was smarter than he was.”

I wondered if he might not even be able to buy a gun with his psychiatric history, although I did not know how they checked that sort of thing.  I had once been able to block the sale of a gun to a patient whom I knew was suicidal. I am convinced she is still alive because of that.  But here, I was just trying to second-guess a patient — nothing more moral or legal that I could explain or justify.

I have been hunting, exactly once.  In northern France, if you can bag a wild boar, you can sell the bristly skin for the finest hairbrushes, and the meat to make a delicious sort of meat-spread.  I went for the camaraderie of friends whom I had trusted, and a little bit to prove that it was something a woman could do.  I went with a woman friend. I will even admit to being relieved we never “bagged” anything.

Whatever I knew about rifle handling and safety I had learned in an undergraduate elective physical education course at Boston University, many years before.  I will admit to having wondered why people would take pleasure in hunting animals, something many do.

People want the “right to hunt” to be around.  People are equally passionate about not wanting it around.  

In the last 15 years,9 states have passed “right to hunt” legislation despite vehement opposition by the People for Ethical Treatment for Animals, or PETA.

My search taught me that hunters actually can have quite a reverence for nature. They can enjoy participating in the “ecosystem” as a predator, and even make of the kill some kind of “peak experience.”

As often, with any area of psychology this contested, there is an academic somewhere who has decided to make a career of it.  In this case, it is Dr. Stephen Kellert of Yale, whose work is nicely summarized here.  It is at least enough to convince me that something Karl Menninger said a long time ago, about all hunters being sadists was not so correct.

The reasons a person chooses to hunt can vary between a need to earn a living and a religious-type experience.

I remembered that an action of control comes from fear.  I was afraid for my patient and so deep down I wanted to control his future actions, something which I knew perfectly well I never could.  The letting go was my problem.

Neither ethically nor morally nor in any way I could figure out, could his desire to hunt be my problem.  I just told him to be careful if he got to hunt, because sometimes bad things happened.  “You have been through a lot and you are a precious and valuable person.”  “You sound like a mother,” he said, and he was correct.  He even gave me a little hug, something I never expect from someone who carries the diagnosis of schizophrenia.  “I’ll be careful.  Don’t worry about me; you taught me how much I need my medicines.”

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