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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Of all the outrages to decency and common sense during National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre’s bizarre press conference following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the most offensive may have been his depiction of America as a dark hell haunted by homicidal maniacs.

“The truth,” LaPierre insisted, “is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?”

Monsters, evil, possessed. Demons, for the love of God.

Is this the 21st century, or the 17th? In LaPierre’s mind, like many adepts of the gun cult, it follows that every grown man and woman must equip themselves with an AR-15 semi-automatic killing machine with a 30-round banana clip to keep monsters out of elementary schools. Die Hard: With a Blackboard.

To be fair, polls show that most gun owners support reasonable reforms like closing the “gun show” loophole allowing no-questions-asked sales that evade FBI background checks. It may be politically possible to ban high-capacity magazines and to reinstate something like the assault weapons ban allowed to expire in yet another of President George W. Bush’s many gifts to the nation.

That these actions would have limited short-term effect is no reason not to act. Nobody’s Second Amendment rights would be compromised either. America can’t achieve sensible gun laws without first politically isolating extremists.

But there’s another way that LaPierre’s appalling rhetoric helps make a bad situation worse. Loose talk about possession and demons serves only to deepen the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness and contributes to society’s refusal to deal seriously with its effects.

Newtown mass shooter Adam Lanza hasn’t been, and probably can’t be, diagnosed with any certainty. But all the signs point to paranoid schizophrenia, a devastating brain disease whose victims are no more possessed by demons than are cancer patients or heart attack survivors.

Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg writes that early signs of the disease “may include being a quirky loner—often mistaken for Asperger’s syndrome,” the less-stigmatizing diagnosis Nancy Lanza reportedly told friends accounted for her son’s peculiarities.

Schizophrenia is a physiological disorder of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, resulting in disordered and obsessive thinking, auditory hallucinations and other forms of psychosis. Sufferers often imagine themselves to have a special connection with God or some other powerful figure. It’s when they start hearing command voices telling them to avenge themselves upon imagined enemies that terrible things can happen.

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