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Pulling the Trigger: Guns and Mental Illness

Illustration credit: Anh Ngo

Illustration credit: Anh Ngo

Society has unfortunately become accustomed to tragedy in the form of mass gun violence. Whenever terror strikes, fingers are pointed to parents, schools, and the shooter themselves. The rise in horrific acts like the Newtown Elementary School and Aurora Theater Shootings have caused people to look more into the source of violence rather than the immediate cause. The dangerous combination of mental illness and the right to bear arms is at the forefront of this discussion, although the issues surrounding such a thesis are complex beyond mere gun control.

Since the 1960’s, the United States has worked toward creating effective laws that keep automatic weapons out of the hands of those considered dangerously mentally ill. The Gun Control Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Act and the 2013 Safe Act were all written to increase the standards of those wishing to purchase a firearm. However, one need look no further than the illegality of drugs to understand that those who truly want something will find a way. In many cases, a shooter obtains a weapon outside of the legal industry or uses someone else’s for their crime.

The question then is not how can we strengthen gun control further, but rather how can we pinpoint and treat the mentality of one who is driven to mass violence. Around 80% of the U.S. population believe mental illness is closely related to large-scale shootings, yet certain states make gaining institutional help so difficult that many of those suffering are unable to get the assistance they need.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the text used to determine what a person is experiencing and how to attend it – is constantly changing to the point that it is now complicated to determine mental illness. For example, until 1987 the DSM listed homosexuality as a sexual mental disorder in need of treatment. If we cannot accurately diagnose the root of a mental issue, how can we solve it?

forsaleMaria Konnikova of The New Yorker made the point that “what happens if the act of violence is the first diagnosable act? Any policy based on mental illness would have failed to prevent it.” This is heard in several mass shooting cases, where parents and friends state the culprit may have been “odd” or “troubled” but never knew how deep the issue went. On occasion the shooter led a “normal,” outwardly healthy lifestyle up until they pulled the trigger.

Even psychiatrists trained in the field of mental illness have difficulty diagnosing someone as dangerous. In one study, University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Charles Lidz found that 53 percent of the patients involved were accurately predicted to be dangerous, but 36 percent thought to be harmless turned out to have violent tendencies.

In an LA Times chronology of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S., 29 out of 42 ended with the death of the shooter. Of these, 22 were suicide and seven were killed by law enforcement on the scene. Only 13 gave themselves up to the law. Theories state that when people are driven to suicide they fear dying alone and therefore wish to take as many with them as they can. Others believe after a shooter realizes the extent of their atrocities, they see no other option. Either way, suicide appears to be the closest link between mental illness and gun violence.

In 2010, 19,000 out of 31,000 (or 61 percent) of gun-related deaths were suicide. Over the 11 years between 1999 and 2010, suicide in the U.S. spiked by 28%, with 21%-44% having shown a tendency toward severe self-harm. Statistics such as these are causing senators to call for increased funding of suicide prevention centers like the Suicide Prevention Technical Assistance Center. Laws are often difficult to pass, but one amendment made it through in favor of better mental health resources.

Jennifer Bendery writing for The Huffington Post, however, mentioned that “pushing for more funding for suicide prevention in the middle of a gun debate… could be damaging – and fuel the stigma of mental health.” Merely stating that the mentally ill should not own guns perpetuates the idea that such illness always equates violence. Instead, a less accusatory tone should be taken to ease both sides – gun owners and suicide support organizations – into agreement and progress.

Several studies have been done which can help to explain why certain mass tragedies occur, and they are not as related to mental illness as one may think. The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study determined that out of over 1,000 previously institutionalized patients, only those with a tendency toward substance abuse were found to be more violent. A National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions reported that of the 32,000 individuals studied, 3% of those with admitted mental illness had been violent in the past year, 1% of the general public had been violent, and a staggering 10% of those with addiction issues made up the majority of violent behavior.

substance-abuseJeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University, found those who were male, of a low income and inclined toward addiction were more likely to engage in gun violence. His thesis is that looking to these points are better indicators of violent behavior than mental illness.

Substance abuse and addiction can be considered forms of mental illness, but they are not treated in the same way. As a result we may be allocating to much of our resources to certain institutions and not enough to others.

Recent events also suggest that race is playing a role in gun violence. A slew of riots and shootings have occurred with the rise of the Black Lives Matter group, mainly by white supremacists seeking to shut down the activist group. The church massacre this summer and most recently the events in Minneapolis show that the U.S. is moving backwards in respect to a culturally accepting society. All the factors contributing to mass violence must be considered to promote a more peaceful state.

Reduced violence in this country is not as easy as demanding more restrictive gun laws. It’s not as easy as promoting better health care or pacifying a group of people. And it doesn’t end with identifying the problem. Major changes across several institutions will be needed if we want to see an end to mass violence and tragic suicide. Changes which need to come soon before more triggers are pulled.

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