Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Gun Violence

When mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, take place, we all want answers. We want to know why someone would do such a thing and how to keep it from happening again. One of the explanations politicians jump to is mental illness.

“I think it’s the human inclination to explain [this] behavior … as the result of mental illness, because it’s very hard to understand that individuals do not have to be mentally ill to do something frightening and tragic,” forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy told The Washington Post. That perspective remains fundamentally flawed. Not only does it scapegoat a vulnerable population, it’s just inaccurate.

Americans want someone to blame

People hug after the mass shooting at the country music festival in Las Vegas. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Mass shootings are complicated. Researchers spend a lot of time trying to determine predictors. “The whole notion of mental illness and mass shootings is so poorly understood,” said Liza Gold, a forensic psychiatrist at Georgetown University. “It’s like dealing with people in a parallel dimension.”

Most Americans want to blame the mental health system, something legislation can control. A Pew Research survey found that 89% of gun owners and non-gun owners thought people with mental illness should have their access restricted. But experts say that just wouldn’t solve the problem. “Most gun violence — 98% — is not attributable to people with mental illness,” Gold said. 

Most mentally ill people aren’t violent against others

A young girl leaves flowers on crosses named for the victims outside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. | Mark Ralston /AFP/Getty Images

If we cured schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar, violent crime in the U.S. would fall by only 4%, according to Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson. “People with mental illness are people, and the vast majority aren’t any more of a risk than anyone else,” he said.

The National Institute of Health sponsored a study that surveyed about 10,000 people in five urban areas from 1980-85. It asked if respondents had met criteria for mental illnesses and if they’d hit, punched, pushed, shoved, or otherwise violently attacked someone. Analysts found that people meeting criteria for schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar did become more likely to report violent behavior. But the share of overall violence explained by serious mental illness fell between 3 and 5.3%. Another factor explains violent outbursts better.

Substance abuse and maltreatment can predict violence

This Connecticut State Police photo shows Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooter Adam Lanza as a child. | Connecticut State Police via Getty Images

Researchers discovered that mentally ill people with no substance abuse issues, who experienced no maltreatment as children, and never lived in adverse environments showed a lower risk of violence than the general population.

“If you add any one of those three, it doubles,” Swanson explained. “If you add any two, it doubles again … all three, your risk triples.” Subsequent research found that while non-substance-abusing mentally ill people have only a slightly higher risk of violence, that abuse hugely increases it.

Prior arrests may also predict future outbursts

Two women embrace beside a memorial for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to Slate, studies on murder and prior records of violence found prior police records in 80- 90% of murderers. That contrasts 15% of American adults overall. In a study of domestic murderers, 46% of the perpetrators had a restraining order against them at some point. Domestic violence precedes family murders more than 90% of the time.

Compared to those with no criminal record, handgun purchasers with at least one misdemeanor conviction stand seven times more likely to commit a new offense after they buy a gun. As The Atlantic notes, only 23 states restrict those previously convicted of violent misdemeanors from owning firearms.

The sole consistent similarity among mass shooters? Anger

A Newtown, Conn vigil remembering those killed in the Las Vegas shooting | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to The Washington Post, fixing the mental health system won’t stop mass murders, but researchers did find one consistent correlation. “It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” said Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

In a 2016 paper, Stone found that just two out of 10 mass killers had a serious mental illness diagnosis. The rest carried personality or antisocial disorders or were disgruntled, jilted, humiliated, or full of intense rage. He called them unlikely to become identified or helped by the mental-health system, reformed or not. Another researcher explained why.

Most mass shooters don’t seek treatment for their issues

Family members cry at a prayer vigil for the Colorado mass shooting victims. | Aaron Ontiveroz-Pool/Denver Post via Getty Images

Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox writes extensively about mass shooters. “The thing about mass killers is that they externalize blame,” he told The Atlantic. “All the disappointments, all the failures, the broken relationships, are because other people treated them wrong. They don’t see themselves as being inadequate and flawed.”

A recent paper similarly concluded, “very few of persons [sic] in the risky category of having anger traits combined with gun access had ever been hospitalized for a mental-health problem.”

Vox notes that mass killers tend to share a few key characteristics — “depression, resentment, social isolation, the tendency to externalize blame, fascination with graphically violent entertainment, and a keen interest in weaponry.” The problem remains that the general population shares many of those characteristics. Just because an introverted kid plays Counterstrike doesn’t make him likely to shoot up a school.

Requiring therapists to report could have an adverse effect

People embrace at a memorial for victims of the church shooting in Charleston, S.C. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Fox further argued that if laws required therapists to report their threatening patients to gun registries — as exists in California — people who want guns can avoid therapy. That means more potentially violent people, not fewer. Attempting to flag angsty young males as future killers might push them closer toward violence, rather than away from it.

The researcher further noted difficulties in linking psychopathic killers with the mental health system. After studying mass shooters for decades, he concluded that the same things motivate killers as any angry person: revenge, money, power, a sense of loyalty, and a desire to create terror.

How do we stop rage-filled men from killing?

Assault rifles hang on the wall for sale at Blue Ridge Arsenal. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

CNN analyzed scores of data that shows countries with higher gun ownership rates see more gun deaths. “It is a gun issue,” Stone told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There are very few mass murderers who are certifiably crazy.”

The U.S. has one of the highest rates of death by firearm in the developed world, according to World Health Organization data. Globally, more restrictive gun laws lead to fewer mass murders. In Australia, for example, four mass shootings occurred between 1987 and 1996. After those incidents, public opinion turned against gun ownership. As a result, Parliament passed stricter gun laws. Australia hasn’t seen a mass shooting since.

Would more restrictive gun laws prevent mass shootings entirely? Maybe, maybe not. But a wealth of research demonstrates flaws in blaming mental illness. Let’s look elsewhere for solutions.

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