Sovereign Citizens, Mental Health, and Violence

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Note: I have a personal policy to not name people who engage in these types violent acts, since one of the big motivators seems to be a desire for fame. I refuse to help them in that cause.

The big argument in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others is whether or not the shooter was crazy. As Robert Wright pointed out in today’s New York Times, that has a lot to do with a desire to control the narrative from a political standpoint. If the shooter (in this case) is sane, then he can be cast as a “coherent expression” of the ideology he’s said to represent. If he’s crazy, then no one he’s connected to can be held to account for his actions.

In this case, it seems at first glance that the shooter was just crazy. The list of books he claimed were his influences seem to come from all over the political globe. And then there’s the fact that he killed or wounded 19 people. We tend to view such people as something less than the epitome of mental stability.

But what if there’s more going on here than “just crazy” or “lone gunman”? There may be.

If you haven’t heard of the “sovereign citizens” movement, that’s probably because it doesn’t get much attention. It doesn’t get much attention because it’s difficult to figure out just what sovereign citizens are saying, much of the time. Fortunately, people like Justine Sharrock and J J MacNab have spent a lot of time deciphering their views and arguments. (Kevin Carey’s story in the Washington Monthly also provides some good background.)

There’s too much here for me to sum up–you’ll need to spend some time working through it–and I don’t want to suggest that this shooter was completely sane just because there may have been an ideology behind his attack. After all, McNab estimates there may be as many as 300,000 hard core sovereign believers, and the vast majority haven’t engaged in acts of violence against law enforcement or government officials. This seems more like a both/and situation rather than an either/or one.

But I think it’s important to widen the narrative around this incident, because right now the argument seems to be over whether the political climate contributed to this action, and how much responsibility certain public figures should bear for this man’s actions. There are side debates over gun control going on as well, with one Arizona politician carrying her gun onto the floor of the State House, while another, Republican Peter King, wants to ban guns within 1,000 feet of a federal official. There’s even been one Arizona Republican party official who has resigned his position because he fears for his safety.

And the public figures who’ve found themselves at the center of this controversy seem to be doubling down rather than rethinking what they’ve said in the past. The latest instance (earlier today) is the use of the term “blood libel” to describe the connections between their statements and the killings in Arizona. The phrase “blood libel,” by the way, refers to the “centuries-old anti-Semitic slander – the false charge that Jews use the blood of Christian children for rituals – that has been used as an excuse for persecution.”

There’s been relatively little discussion over improving health care for those with mental illness, however, and that’s worrying since the dominant narrative seems to be that this man was crazy. Unfortunately, the current mode of thinking seems to be that we can’t really do anything about crazy, so we’ll just mourn and move on and wait for the next disaster.

Mix all this together–a reckless disregard for facts and the meanings of words, a society that celebrates violence, and a disregard for the mental health of its citizens–and it’s a wonder we don’t see more incidents like this.


Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →