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Scapegoating the Mentally Ill Won’t Stop Gun Violence

Research challenges the presumed link between mass shootings and mental illness.

The horrific mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder have reignited debate over gun laws. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky suggests the main problem is not guns but mental illness.

Gezer Amorim/Pexels
Source: Gezer Amorim/Pexels

Interviewed on Fox News, the Senate minority leader remarked that “these acts of violence are horrendous. We’ve seen them happen periodically in our history. It reminds us that the real challenge here is mental illness, and identifying people who are likely to do this kind of thing in advance is very, very difficult.”

There is a common misconception that being diagnosed with a mental illness strongly predicts violent behavior. This is simply not so. Not only are most people identified as mentally ill not violent, but the percentage of shootings attributable to them is small. Research consistently finds this to be so (Ash, 2018; Anacker & Pinals, 2018; Baumann & Teasdale, 2018; Knoll & Annas, 2016; Metzel & MacLeish, 2015; Rosenberg, 2014; Van Brunt & Pescara-Kovach, 2019). With this fact in mind, one research review concluded that policies focused on keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people (who commit less than 3 percent of all gun violence) are bound to fail (Knoll & Annas, 2016).

Thus, the consensus among social scientists is that targeting mental illness won’t reduce gun violence. Advocating such policies also promulgates the stereotype that people with mental disorder diagnoses are violent and unpredictable. In other words, “gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked” (Knoll & Annas, 2016, p. 82).

One recent study found that although people with a mental disorder diagnosis who have access to a firearm are at higher risk for suicide, they are not at higher risk for harming others (Baumann & Teasdale, 2019)—a finding consistent with previous research (Anacker & Pinals, 2018). Other research has found that there is “no known profile that allows the early identification of a mass killer” (Ash, 2018, p. 105). In light of this evidence, repeating the tenuous link between mental illness and violence toward others unfairly risks further stigmatizing people diagnosed with mental disorders while also falsely suggesting that psychologists can reliably identify who is likely to go on a shooting rampage.

It’s not that mental health is completely irrelevant when it comes to mass shootings. Factors such as depression, psychosis, and substance use appear to contribute to some instances of gun violence, but they constitute only a “small percentage of the overall risk” (Van Brunt & Pescara-Kovach, 2019, p. 61). Rather than remaining preoccupied with mental health, why not focus on other factors that appear to be much better predictors of gun violence? These factors include directly or indirectly threatening someone, being fixated on the potential target of a violent act, social isolation, marginalization, feeling persecuted, lack of empathy, holding a hardened point of view, and—alas!—access to weapons (Van Brunt & Pescara-Kovach, 2019).

Yes, access to weapons seems to predict gun violence much better than does having a mental disorder. Those making public policy must take this finding seriously.

References

Anacker, L., & Pinals, D. A. (2018). In the crosshairs: Examining firearms, violence, and mental illness. Psychiatric Annals, 48(9), 416-420. https://doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20180814-01

Ash, P. (2016). School shootings and mental illness. In L. H. Gold & R. I. Simon (Eds.), Gun violence and mental illness (pp. 105-126). American Psychiatric Association.

Baumann, M. L., & Teasdale, B. (2018). Severe mental illness and firearm access: Is violence really the danger? International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 56, 44-49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2017.11.003

Knoll, J. L. I. V., & Annas, G. D. (2016). Mass shootings and mental illness. In L. H. Gold & R. I. Simon (Eds.), Gun violence and mental illness (pp. 81-104). American Psychiatric Association.

Metzl, J. M., & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental illness, mass shootings, and the politics of American firearms. American Journal of Public Health, 105(2), 240-249. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302242

Rosenberg, J. (2014). Mass shootings and mental health policy. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 41(1), 107-121. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jssw/vol41/iss1/6

Van Brunt, B., & Pescara-Kovach, L. (2019). Debunking the myths: Mental illness and mass shootings. Violence and Gender, 6(1), 53-63. https://doi.org/10.1089/vio.2018.0016

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