Irv Lichtenwald

Mental Illness is Not the Cause of Gun Violence

July 12, 2022

Behavioral Health, Public Health 6 Minute Read

I guess there’s just no way to have a sacred cow without also keeping a goat.

Understand, I’m not talking about a GOAT, as in Tom Brady or Michael Jordan. I mean a goat, i.e, something or someone that takes the blame for an event, failed policy, etc., perhaps more commonly called a scapegoat.

The sacred cow, in this instance, is the Second Amendment, which has become so sacrosanct in the national foundational myth of an inspired Constitution that it no longer means a great deal more than “everyone can carry guns wherever and whenever they like with no oversight whatsoever.”

That some of our fellow citizens sometimes use the guns they purchased to murder children in a classroom seems to have no impact on any effort to put even modest limits on the Second Amendment. The problem is not the sacred cow, we are told, but this “other thing,” despite the fact that simple math demonstrates that the other thing minus a gun rarely if ever results in mass casualties.

Since Uvalde, the other thing mentioned most often is mental illness. It isn’t the access to guns that’s the problem, it’s the disturbed people. 

While it goes without saying that mental illness is a problem in the United States — a weekend visit to any American city of significant size provides plenty of evidence — it’s worth saying anyway. America has a mental illness problem that, especially when combined with drug addiction, might accurately be called an epidemic.

But it’s not the poor souls living on our streets that are the most direct threat to public safety because they have very limited access to weapons. What’s more, while many of the individuals who’ve carried out mass shootings in recent years might have been described as different, quiet, troubled, or distant, few if any had an obvious mental illness. Because research has shown that less than 5% of shooters have a diagnosable mental illness, it bears repeating that the mentally ill are much, much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime.

So where, then, does this knee-jerk impulse to blame mental illness whenever there is a mass shooting come from?

In a sense, it is representative of a very human tendency to find simple explanations for complex, frightening phenomena.

“I think when things happen that we don’t understand, we’re quick to try to find a reason for it,” says Jessica Gold, MD, MS, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “Mental illness actually is an easy explanation for people, in part because when you watch things on TV or in movies, you see a lot of violence and mental illness. So when that comes up, you’re quick to say, ‘Well, I’ve already seen that before.’”

In reality, a diagnosable mental illness plays a part in mass shootings so rarely that researchers have said: “The link between mental illness and gun violence is not there.”

The link between gun availability and suicide, however, is virtually impossible to dispute. According to this study, firearm suicides are almost four times as common in states with high rates of gun ownership than in states with low ownership rates. That the number of non-firearm suicides was roughly equivalent in both groups clearly demonstrates the connection between easy gun access and the decision to engage in self-harm.

“While firearms are used in just a small fraction of suicide attempts because they are so uniquely lethal, they are responsible for a majority of American suicide deaths,” says information from Giffords, an organization committed to ending gun violence named for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head while campaigning but survived.

The data clearly shows that suicides are often the result of rash, impulsive moods that, without firearm access, would usually remain just that — moods.

So why are elected leaders so quick to blame mental illness when there is another mass shooting?

First of all, because it shifts the focus almost immediately from the sacred cow, one perceived problem, to another, and because it enables society to ‘other’ the unfortunate individuals who suffer from mental illness.

Unfairly, raising the specter of mental illness places blame on a group of people who either cannot defend themselves or don’t see themselves in the caricature that’s presented. The lack of specificity in the argument means those with depression and anxiety — mental disorders both — can immediately say, “Well, that’s not me. I’m not killing people with guns.” This is true, causally, even if people who happen to be depressed sometimes go on a rampage.

Second, blaming mental illness provides the public with a certain level of uncomfortable comfort—a ready explanation for something frightening that doesn’t ask the recipients of the explanation to rethink who they are or what they believe in.

Third, the shift to a focus on mental illness removes much of the responsibility for solving mass violence from the shoulders of public officials because the public, by and large, is not expecting the government to make wholesale changes to physical and mental healthcare. Indeed, polling shows that Americans want the healthcare system to change, so long as their healthcare remains the same.

“Too many elected officials … continue to use an age-old strategy of giving lip service without taking any action to mitigate the impact of mental illness or gun violence,” says Clinical Psychologist Benjamin Miller. “Or even more damning, blaming an issue — in this case mental health—as the cause of our problems without acknowledging that their policy decisions have made conditions worse.”

As Miller points out, identifying mental illness as a simplistic cause of gun violence distracts from the very complex causes of violent incidents like those most recently in Buffalo and Uvalde. I mean, how do we deal in the short term with runaway inflation, pandemic fatigue, allegations of a stolen election, and the kind of desperation that clings to people who can’t come up with $800 in an emergency? In the long term, what do we do to unite a divided nation and counteract the corrosive power of social media?

“At the federal, state, and local levels, we elect our leaders to be servants of the people, and to represent the best and broadest interests of their constituents,” Miller writes. “But when we see that, from sea to shining sea, our entire country is experiencing rising rates of mental distress, alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicide, at what point can we ask, who are these leaders really serving?” 

That’s not a question that requires much thought.

So, the next time a public official blames mental illness for another mass shooting, insist that they define their terms and stop blaming the truly mentally ill for something they are not doing. Insist that they do something to either lift people out of their quiet desperation or keep guns out of the hands of those with violent intent. If they do neither, maybe it’s time to replace them with people who will act more than they pontificate.

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