It’s amusing to watch the New York Times contort itself into a pretzel when one of its left-wing orthodoxies conflicts with another. Last Sunday, the Times led its front page with Anemona Hartcollis’s remarkably sympathetic story about claims by “mental-health advocates”—who typically advocate the “rights” of the severely mentally ill to refuse treatment and sleep in their own excrement on the sidewalk—that a New York law is making it difficult for mental health patients identified as dangerous to obtain and keep guns. A provision of the SAFE Act (“Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013”) requires mental-health professionals to report any patient “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others,” and requires local gun-licensing authorities to revoke or suspend licenses held by these patients and to deny any new applications from them for five years after such a report. Any such revocation or suspension, or a patient’s continued ineligibility for a license during the five-year period, can be challenged in court under the state’s administrative-review statute.
The tone and prominence of Sunday’s article suggest that the Times has decided that its support for expansive rights for the mentally ill trumps its support for expansive gun-control legislation. Speaking favorably for what must be the first time of “the right to bear arms” (without a single harrumph about a well-regulated militia), the Times frets that the provision has denied this right to 34,500 “people with mental health issues,” though it notes that only 278 of them actually had gun permits. Trotting out its usual talking points about the rights of the mentally ill (rather than its usual talking points about gun control), the Times quotes unnamed “advocates” and “experts” who warn that such laws “stigmatize people with mental illnesses” and “discourage patients from seeking help.” They lecture us that “the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent.” The Times also indicates concern that a court proceeding is the only recourse available to a reported patient and, in what must surely be another first, respectfully quotes a spokesman for the NRA, which favors the creation of an administrative-review process as well, “to make sure that ‘these decisions are not being made capriciously and maliciously.’”
The NRA makes a fair point. But it’s hard to imagine the Times giving a similarly sympathetic hearing to the NRA’s concerns that a gun control provision might “capriciously and maliciously” infringe “the right to bear arms” of law-abiding citizens without “mental health issues.” In fact, in 2008, the paper blisteringly condemned the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller for recognizing any individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Heller was actually a limited decision. It held that the right to bear arms extends only to the defense of the home with weapons commonly used for that purpose and struck down only laws that banned all handgun possession. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion stressed that a host of restrictions on gun ownership, including “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by . . . the mentally ill,” remained permissible.
While the Times blasted the Heller decision as “wrongheaded and dangerous” (and sure to “cost innocent lives, cause immeasurable pain and suffering and turn America into a more dangerous country”) for recognizing a limited individual Second Amendment right, it now appears to lament the failure to fully extend to the mentally ill what it would deny to everyone else. Such are the perils of knee-jerk orthodoxy.