Who Should Own A Gun?

Who should be trusted to own a gun? Can psychological screening help?

Posted Aug 03, 2015

Of the 50,000 or more violent deaths occurring in the United States each year, the overwhelming majority involve death by firearm.   According to Center for Disease Control statistics, 30 firearm-related homicides and 53 firearm-related suicides take place each day and those statistics don't even include deaths occurring due to accidental shootings. Since the entire issue of gun safety in the United States continues to be a major source of controversy, both politically and socially, actual policies that can reduce gun deaths tend to be difficult to implement and even harder to enforce.  

Whatever your stand happens to be regarding gun control,  one thing that we can all agree on is that there are some people who simply cannot be trusted with guns.  Virtually all of the recent tragic incidents which have taken place in recent years, including the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Colorado movie theatre, the Tuscon, Arizona constituents'  meeting, and at Virginia Tech have certain common elements.   They all involve mentally ill shooters using large-capacity firearms to kill as many people as possible before authorities could intervene.  Many of these shooters also have a history of social isolation, emotional abuse, and often have a history of being bullied as well.

Could these kind of tragedies be prevented with better psychological screening in place to weed out potential mass shooters?   Even though media attention surrounding shootings tend to focus on mental illness,  there is no clear link between mental health problems and violence.   Most violent offenders aren't mentally ill and the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness don't commit violent offenses.   Still, the perception of mentally ill people as being inherently dangerous is affecting gun laws in many states.  Though having a history of violence usually disqualifies people from purchasing guns, some state and federal legislation are now extending that to include anyone with a history of mental disorders, including substance abuse, from owning or purchasing a firearm. There are also calls to restrict people who are regarded as suicide risks from owning guns but this is controversial as well.

Despite the controversy though, opinion polls show that most Americans favour laws limiting access to firearms to people with a history of violence or mental illness.  Much like the old slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people",  screening people applying for gun licenses would put more emphasis on responsible gun ownership rather than restricting guns outright, something that seems impossible in today's political climate.  

Unfortunately, laws like the Brady Bill, which allows for background checks on people trying to purchase firearms, are notoriously hard to enforce.   Though the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is supposed to allow licensed firearm dealers to identify people prohibited from owning guns, participation by individual states is strictly voluntary with many states refusing to participate.  Also, people can purchase guns privately without involving the NICS at all. 

While preventing people with mental problems from buying guns is hard to enforce in many places,  many states are still pushing for more stringent rules, including requiring psychological assessments for anyone whose firearm certificate has been revoked.   This includes a formal risk assessment looking at likelihood of suicide or violence before granting access to guns.   There are problems with this kind of risk assessment since most instruments for measuring risk of violence or suicide are usually intended for people who already have a history of violent offenses or suicide attempts.   How can psychologists catch the kind of people who are likely to go on to commit offenses such as the Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook shootings?   

Even though Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza and Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho both had a history of psychological problems, their violent rampages still caught everyone by surprise.  Are there specific guidelines that mental health professionals could follow to weigh the risk of allowing certain people to own guns?

A new article published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice provides some practical guidelines for firearm assessments and the sort of questions that professionals should ask prospective gun owners and people seeking to have their gun licenses restored after having it revoked for some reason.  According to lead author Gianni Pirelli and the team of colleagues who helped him develop the guidelines,  people performinng firearm assessments need tofocus on ten specific domains to address risk of violence or suicide.   These domains include:

  • What is the specific reason for getting a gun license?   -   If someone had their gun license suspended, the reasons involved should be weighed carefully.  Also, if someone is applying for a gun for the first time, what are the reasons for buying a gun?  Someone who wants to purchase a gun for protection or for hunting might have different types of guns in mind.   Most people who want to buy guns for protection usually purchase handguns while hunters favour rifles. 
  • How much experience or exposure to firearms does the applicant have?  -  While some people may have been around guns all their lives, such as through hunting, other people may have different ideas about what guns are and what they can do. 
  • Has the applicant been trained in proper gun safety, including how they can be stored safely? - According to the National Rifle Association's own Gun Safety Rules, it is important to ask basic questions about how the gun and the ammunition will be stored, and how frequently the gun is expected to be used, and who will have access to it.   If there are children in the house, the applicant should be questioned about their safety.  Also, if there are people in the house who might have access to the gun who have a history of mental illness or violence, this needs to be taken into consideration as well.  Proper storage and preventing access to firearms can curb most gun-related injuries, particularly when children are involved.
  • How competent is the gun owner, and are there plans for continued gun education?  Some states require prospective gun owners to do a safe handling demonstration along with completing a firearms safety course before being issued a license.    Continuing education is also important to ensure that gun owners keep their gun skills sharp and to ensure that they are aware of any changes to legislation and requirements linked to owning and operating a firearm.
  • Knowledge of local firearm regulations and perspectives on the law.    Gun owners need to be aware of federal and state law relating to gun use and also need to be aware of their responsibilities if they travel with a gun.   Many gun owners crossing the border to other countries or even other states are often surprised to find that they are breaking the law by having a gun in a jurisdiction in which their license isn't valid.
  • Violence and/or suicide risk.   This is often the hardest issue to determine since people wanting to purchase guns aren't likely to admit to violent or suicidal impulses when being questioned by an evaluator.    Most formal risk assessment measures aren't going to be useful since they are designed for people who have a history of violent offenses or mental disorders.    Someone with no history of criminal offenses or suicide attempts won't display any of the standard warning signs of potential violence.  Still, there are things that evaluators can watch for including whether the person being evaluated is showing signs of emotional distress or is experiencing significant stress due to something like job loss or divorce.
  • Mental health history and/or substance abuse.   Simply being diagnosed with a mental disorder shouldn't automatically disqualify someone from owning a gun since most forms of mental illness aren't really related to risk of violence or likelihood of misusing a gun.  Still, people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or problems with impulse control need to be questioned about what they plan to do with the gun they purchase.  This also applies to drug or alcohol abuse, especially if there are criminal offenses relating to substance abuse on record.  

There have been many high-profile cases involving violence, suicide, or even accidental deaths relating to firearm over the past decade.   Though gun control remains controversial,  there seems to be fairly broad agreement that certain people should not be allowed to have access to guns.    Over the next few years, we are likely to see greater political pressure to change current federal and state gun laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who might misuse guns.    That also means that mental health professionals are going to become more involved in assessing potential gun owners or people who are trying to have their gun license reinstated.   The ten domains suggested by Gianni Pirelli and his colleagues can help these professionals to screen these applicants and eliminate the ones who have the highest risk of violence or suicide.   

Curbing the horrendous number of gun-related deaths that have been happening across the United States won't be easy, but it can be possible with enough political will.

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