Mass Shootings and the Myths that Arise

The recent mass shooting has lead me to serious consideration of the relationship between mental illness and violence. I’ll share what I have learned from my studies with you.

Four Myths Arise After Mass Shootings

One: Mental Illness Causes Gun Violence

Two: Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens

Three: Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass-shooters, gun control “won’t prevent” mass shootings

Four: US mass shootings “prove” that we should fear mentally ill loners

All four of these assumptions are incorrect, though understandable. Research by Dr. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeisch finds that an isolated focus on mental illness is misguided.

In their article [1]“ Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms”, the two researchers analyzed data and literature linking guns and mental illness over the past 40 years.  The result of the research: most people with mental illness are not violent.

Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the US between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.

Misdirected Blame

“There are 32,000 gun deaths in the United States on average every year. People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends or acquaintances that they are by lone violent psychopaths.” Metzl and MacLeisch stated “We should set our attention and gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime.”

Mental Health Screenings Cannot Predict Gun Crime

Psychiatric diagnosis is in and of itself not predictive of violence. In fact, the vast majority of persons with serious mental illness do not engage in violent acts [2]. Those with mental illness are far more likely to harm themselves and frequently find themselves victims of violent crimes. [3].

Signs to Predict Gun Violence

If we focus on mental illness, we ignore those other factors that do predict gun violence more broadly:

  • Drug and alcohol use
  • History of violence
  • Access to firearms
  • Personal relationship stress

“People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths“ [2].

What we can pay more attention to, as a nation, and as local governments, is the quality and availability of mental health care, medication, and health insurance.

“In a way it is a failure of the system often that becomes represented as a failure of the individual“ [1].

Sources cited:

[1] Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms
[2] Mental Illness is the wrong scapegoat after mass shootings, experts say
[3]  Gun Violence and mental illness: Study addresses perception vs. reality

– Gail Louise