Dunleavy: Off Target

Mental illness is not to blame for interpersonal gun violence.

by Hannah Dunleavy | 7/1/22 4:05am

In response to horrifying mass shootings, pro-gun activists have pointed toward the mental health crisis plaguing the United States as the underlying cause of gun violence. Despite this rhetoric, the evidence is clear – mental illness is not to blame for gun violence. The idea that mental illness causes gun violence is harmful, as it encourages prejudice towards those with mental disorders and discourages them from seeking proper medical help. Pro-gun activists use this unfounded claim to distract from the policies that would actually decrease gun violence in the United States. 

Policies based on addressing mental illness as a predictor of violence would be ineffective. Researchers have repeatedly found that mental illness is not responsible for the United States’ gun violence problem. Although it is true that people with serious mental illnesses are more likely to commit a violent act compared to people without mental illnesses and substance abuse issues (2.9% compared to 0.8%), people with serious mental illnesses account for only 4% of violent acts in the U.S. annually. More accurate predictors of violence include being young, male, of lower socioeconomic status, having a history of substance abuse or undergoing early life trauma. 

Psychiatric assessments, which are time-consuming and expensive, do little to prevent violence either. When psychiatrists have attempted to predict future violence in patients, their assessments were correct only half of the time. Furthermore, the U.S. has similar rates of mental illness to that of other Western countries, yet the rate of gun violence in the U.S. far exceeds all other wealthy nations.

Aren’t gun policies that protect at-risk individuals from suicide a good thing? After all, firearms are the most common means of suicide, accounting for 48.5% of deaths. Unfortunately, preventing people with mental disorders from purchasing guns based on their diagnoses alone would not substantially decrease suicides, as only half of those who kill themselves have a history of mental illness. Additionally, those without mental illness diagnoses are 14.7% more likely to kill themselves with firearms compared to those with diagnoses. 

The good news is that gun control works to decrease suicides. For example, in Washington, D.C., researchers found that a handgun ban rapidly decreased suicides, without increasing or decreasing suicides by other methods. Overall, gun permit and licensing requirements significantly lower suicide rates among men, and gun background checks and waiting periods significantly decrease suicide rates among older populations. 

The more optimistic among us could argue that, at the very least, Republican lawmakers’ concerns about the possible connection between mental illness and gun violence could indicate future efforts to increase mental health funding. Not so fast. Republican lawmakers who sorrowfully describe mental illness as the cause of gun violence rarely advocate for improving mental health programs, increasing funds for treating mental illness or expanding Medicaid to increase access to mental health care. By contrast, those very same lawmakers often cut budgets related to psychiatric treatment. Following the El Paso shooting in 2019, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said “mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence.” But this year, Abbott cut $200 million from the budget of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which funds and implements mental health programs in the state. 

Rhetoric that labels mental illness as the real culprit of gun violence has serious consequences. When people believe the mentally ill are dangerous, they are more likely to support policies and laws that restrict the liberties of people with mental disorders, including involuntary hospitalization, violations of medical privacy and legalized workplace discrimination. Researchers repeatedly found that news stories that identified mass shooters as being mentally ill — whether or not this was the case — caused readers to have stronger perceptions of mentally ill people as dangerous and want to stay away from them. Ultimately, stigmatizing mental illness discourages people from seeking treatment and support, which often has devastating and fatal consequences for the suffering. 

The recently passed, bipartisan Safer Communities Act is a good first step toward achieving meaningful change. It expands background checks for gun buyers under 21, prevents straw purchasing — when an individual buys a firearm for someone else —and invests in mental health resources. Although this leaves us better off than before, the Safer Communities Act is still a compromise. For example, the act does not implement a buyback program to address how we are a country with more civilian-owned firearms than people. The act does not place constraints on the role of money in politics, ignoring how the National Rifle Association spent more than $32 million in 2020 to muffle the calls for gun control. Instead of blaming mental health, the United States needs to address the real causes of interpersonal gun violence: an overabundance of firearms in the United States and gun laws still in need of strengthening.