Mental Illness Loosely Linked to U.S. Gun Violence

Courtesy Fabrice FlorinThe night of Feb. 15, students of Tam High School in Mill Valley, California gathered for a vigil following the deaths of 17 students and adults the day prior at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooter, now in custody, had long shown signs of mental illness.

So far, there have been 34 mass shootings — four or more people shot or killed — in the United States in 2018, according to the Gun Violence Archive. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, more people who defend gun rights are using mental health issues to scapegoat talking points which call for more gun regulation — but each of these counterpoints has flaws.

Defenders of gun rights often claim gun violence is caused by people with mental illnesses. On Feb. 15, the day after the school shooting in Florida, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Mental health is often a big problem underlying these tragedies,” and that Congress wants to make sure those in the mental health system aren’t able to obtain a gun. In a 2013 poll, roughly half of Americans believed the mental health system’s failure in identifying those who were a possible danger to others was responsible for mass shootings.

However, these claims aren’t entirely true. In a study of 235 mass murders, only 25 percent of perpetrators were found to have mental health issues at the time of the murders. Mass shootings carried out by people with serious mental illness account for only one percent of annual gun-related homicides, and perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have any history of psychiatric hospitalization, according to a 2016 study by the American Psychiatric Association.

People tend to assume having a mental disorder can be the only explanation for someone doing something so horrible. Yes, some of these perpetrators do have some sort of mental health issue, and it’s been reported that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was dealing with an unspecified mental illness. However, this doesn’t hold true for most cases of gun violence.

The American Psychiatric Association shows not only is there a minimal correlation between psychiatric disorders and violence against others, but those who are mentally ill are more likely to cause harm to themselves than to others. The claim made by politicians and much of the public — that increasing limitations on gun access to those who have a history of mental health problems will solve America’s issues with gun violence — doesn’t seem to stand true.

Another argument is that, rather than increasing restrictions to guns, increasing mental health care would solve this issue. Once again, the first flaw in this argument is that those with mental health issues aren’t the primary cause of gun violence in America. The second flaw is that with obstacles standing in the way of receiving health care, such as insurance coverage availability, receiving more mental health care won’t be as easy as it’s made to seem.

False claims about the correlation between mental health and gun violence perpetuate these beliefs in the public eye, stigmatizing those who are mentally ill. This, in turn, can cause society to frame them as criminals, shunning or discriminating against them. People who suffer from mental health issues might be afraid to talk about it or seek help, which only makes the problem worse.

Mental health issues aren’t to blame for America’s gun problem, as data shows the great majority of gun violence isn’t caused by the mentally ill. Increasing mental health care, though it won’t do any additional harm, isn’t the answer to solving the problem with gun violence in the United States.

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