Mental Health and Gun Violence 101

In this series of blog post I’ll try to present an unbiased set of facts concerning people with mental health issues and gun violence. I think you get enough from the talking heads that spew uneducated sensationalised vomit on our main media channels. Why do people that we are supposed to trust lie about such an important subject. Shame on them.

After the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, a senator announced that he supported measures to keep guns “out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill” (Strauss 2012). Shortly thereafter, a National Rifle Association official stated in a press conference that “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can even possibly comprehend them. . . .How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?” (The Washington Post 2012). Such statements, widely disseminated by the media, reinforce the existing societal presumptive association between “criminals,” “evil,” and “the mentally ill.” In fact, such misguided associations need no further reinforcement. The lay public requires little persuasion to associate mental illness with criminality and evil (Coulter 2012) In no way will this kind of rhetoric bullshit be helpful in preventing gun violence. I will try to provide you with some real facts from people who know and are in the trenches.

Mass Shootings and Mental Illness James L. Knoll IV, M.D. George D. Mass Shootings and\n Mental Illness Annas, M.D., M.P.H.

Common Misperceptions

 Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent the most significant relationship between gun violence and mental illness.

 People with serious mental illness should be considered dangerous.

 Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness or Common Misperceptions a psychiatric diagnosis can effectively prevent mass shootings.

 Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness or a psychiatric diag- nosis are reasonable, even if they add to the stigma already associated with mental illness. Evidence-Based Facts

 Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths.

 The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%. When these crimes are examined in detail, an even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms.

 Laws intended to reduce gun violence that focus on a population rep- resenting less than 3% of all gun violence will be extremely low yield, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources. Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hos- pitalization. Thus, databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by guns laws that broadly target people with mental ill- ness will not capture this group of individuals.

 Gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked. Stigma represents a major barrier to access and treatment of mental illness, which in turn increases the public health burden. Mass shootings understandably create outpourings of public horror and outrage. Nevertheless, and contrary to common media depictions and the general public’s beliefs, mass shootings are extremely rare events. These tragedies are influenced by multiple complex factors, many of which are still poorly understood. However, the lay public and the media typically assume that the perpetrator has a mental illness and that the mental illness is the cause of these highly violent acts of horrific desperation. Although some mass shooters are found to have a history of psychiatric illness, no reliable research has suggested that a majority of perpetrators are primarily influenced by serious mental illness as opposed to, for example, psychological turmoil flowing from other sources. As a result, debate on how to prevent mass shootings has focused heavily on issues that are 1) highly politicized, 2) grossly oversimplified, and 3) unlikely to result in productive solutions. In this blog post, we discuss the existing research, limited though it may be, on mass shootings and then examine the nature of the link between gun violence and mental illness. We consider the value of gun laws focusing on mental illness, with attention to their potential efficacy in preventing future mass shootings. We conclude by proposing that instead of the focus on mental illness, increased attention should be paid to socio cultural factors associated with mass shootings and exploring other interventions and areas for further research.


Because of frequent and sensational media coverage, it may appear that the era of mass shootings began in 1966, atop the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, and became a part of American life in subsequent decades (Associated Press 2007). However, cases of mass murder, of which mass shootings are a sub- Copyright © 2016 American Psychiatric Association Publishing. All Rights Reserved. To purchase the complete resource, please visit or your local bookseller. Mass Shootings and Mental Illness 83 set, have been recorded over time long before mass shootings captured public attention. For example, in the Bath school disaster of 1927, to this day the deadliest mass murder in a school in United States history, one man killed 38 Michigan elementary school children and 6 adults and injured at least 58 other people. The farmer who perpetrated these attacks had run into financial trouble. His wife was seriously ill with tuberculosis. He reportedly became angry after an in- crease in taxes and losing an election in which he had run for town clerk. He first killed his wife, then firebombed his farm, and then detonated explosives in the Bath Consolidated School, before committing suicide by detonating a final explosion in his truck. Like many modern-day mass murderers, he left a final communication. Stenciled and painted on a board outside his property, his message read, “Criminals are made, not born”—a statement suggestive of externalization of blame and long-held grievance. Many “pre modern” cases of mass murder often involved a depressed and angry male who killed his family and then himself. Such cases did not capture much media attention because they were regarded primarily as “family business” and were “too close for comfort” (Dietz 1986, p. 481). In contrast, mass shootings beginning in the 1990s and covered intensely by the media appeared to be a different type of violence, at least in the eyes of the public. Heavily armed individuals who had meticulously planned a public massacre in which they intended to spread as much destruction as possible and then kill themselves seemed a new phenomenon. Compared with depressed and despair- ing familicide-suicides, these “modern” cases seemed distant enough from the average person’s experience to capture the public’s attention with morbid fascination over prolonged periods of time. Mass shootings cause endless public speculation regarding causes and motives. However, high-profile cases of mass shootings, which typically receive the most intense media coverage, are in fact the least representative of mass killings. In reality, such rare cases are the result of many complex factors. Nevertheless, the news media have heavily influenced the public’s perception of mass murders (Duwe 2005), offering simplified explanations that assume the perpetrator is either “mad or bad.” After all, who but a madman would execute innocent people in broad daylight, while planning to commit suicide or be killed by police? Such simplistic explanations are easier for the media to report, as well as easier for the public to accept. Nevertheless, these explanations are often inaccurate and based on little or no evidence. In addition, they stoke the political fires surrounding debates concerning regulation of firearms while providing no constructive suggestions to prevent future tragedies. Psychiatric illness, although present in some mass murderers and mass shooters, is far from the most significant or consistent finding from attempts to investigate the nature of these deeply troubling events.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.