In the aftermath of mass shootings, a now familiar pattern emerges: tragedy, accusations, pledges to do better, and eventual silence. Laudable desires to enact effective gun control tend to lie at the center of these fleeting public discussions. With some 250–350 million guns in circulation, firearms regulation is an issue of mammoth proportions, and it should be debated. But, unfortunately, attempts to identify the factors that lead to gun violence often take on a stigmatizing and inaccurate bent. That was exemplified by the president’s comment that the man who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February was “mentally disturbed.” Later, he suggested that the lack of “mental hospitals” was to blame for the incident, and even suggested incarcerating innocent people in mental-health facilities because “he hasn’t committed the crime, but he may very well.” Meanwhile, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch suggested “crazy” people should be barred from gun ownership at a CNN town-hall meeting on Wednesday, while Wayne LaPierre told a packed house at CPAC that the “failure of the mental health system” is to blame for gun violence. With sentiments like these, it’s easy to see why “not guilty by reason of insanity” can still result in a lifetime of incarceration.
The president, like much of the rest of the country, is having the wrong conversation about mental health, guns, and violence.
There’s a popular myth that mass shootings are the work of “madmen,” and that keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people via discriminatory policy decisions will resolve the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the United States. This misconception persists despite the fact that it’s blatantly inaccurate: Mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of gun deaths in the United States (by the FBI’s definition of four or more deaths in one incident). Moreover, a 2015 analysis of 235 mass murders, including shootings, found just 46 mentally ill perpetrators; factors like “rage,” “hostility,” and being “disgruntled” were more common than mental-health conditions.
Mentally ill people are not inherently more violent than anybody else. Issues like substance abuse and situational factors can increase violent behavior, but the same is true of people without mental-health conditions. Evidence suggests mentally ill people are actually less likely to kill someone with a firearm, overall, than their sane counterparts.
But when they do, they’re usually killing themselves. This cuts to the crux of the problem with the way we talk about guns and mental health: Rather than taking on the very real and horrific toll of suicide in the United States, pundits and members of the public focus on the very tiny fraction of mentally ill people who commit heinous crimes and extrapolate wild conclusions.
According to the Brady Campaign, approximately two-thirds of gun fatalities in the United States are suicides—that’s 50 people every day dying by gun, accounting for half of all suicides. Suicide, commonly an act of extreme desperation, is highly impulsive in nature; people make decisions about suicide in less than an hour. And of those who attempt suicide and survive, only around 10 percent try again and succeed. The ready availability of an extremely lethal device is a recipe for disaster for people in crisis: Guns account for a small fraction of methods used to attempt suicide, but they are the most successful.
Limiting access to guns could have a profound impact on the suicide rate. There’s evidence to support this: Efforts like changing the formulation of domestic gas, adding suicide barriers at popular jumping sites, and regulating poisons have resulted in reductions in suicide. When a method isn’t available, it gives suicidal people time to stop, think, and seek help.
If the United States is deeply worried about gun deaths—and it should be—identifying an easy point of intervention should be highly appealing. Yet suicide rarely comes up in conversations about gun violence. A few simple measures would save lives, without stigmatizing mental illness or creating discriminatory legislation that might violate privacy, civil rights, and the autonomy of the mentally ill community. There’s no reason for suicide to be the 10th leading cause of death in the United States overall, and the second for people aged 10–34.
Background checks should keep guns out of the hands of people with a history of violence who clearly shouldn’t be owning them—as for example in the case of the man who gunned down 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017. A mental-health condition alone isn’t sufficient cause to blacklist someone. Neither is relying on a representative payee for Social Security. This program appoints people to manage finances for Social Security beneficiaries who can’t handle them on their own, and applies primarily to people with significant cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, not mentally ill people. Yet it was namechecked in Obama-era regulations that the GOP voted to roll back in 2017, leading to widespread outcry that Republicans were handing guns to “people too mentally ill to cash a check.”
That said, self-exclusion is certainly an option for people who worry that they can’t handle weapons responsibly. Research in 2016 found that many mentally ill people would be interested in the opportunity to add themselves to a “do not sell” list, fearing they might try to buy a gun in a moment of desperation and use it to commit suicide. Of 200 survey respondents receiving inpatient or outpatient psychiatric care, 46 percent said they’d like to be able to add their name to such a list, voluntarily flagging themselves so they’d fail a background check.
Requiring people to secure their firearms could also make a huge difference. Yet there’s no federal gun-storage or -locking law, leaving this issue up to the states. Proper storage keeps children from playing with guns—Everytown for Gun Safety identified nearly 300 “accidents” involving minors in 2017—but it can also prevent an impulsive decision on the part of someone who lives in a home with guns.
Waiting periods could be another powerful tool for reducing the availability of firearms for use in homicides as well as for people in crisis, as evidenced by a 2017 study that explored 45 years of data across 16 states and the District of Columbia. The researchers found drops in both homicide and suicide rates in states with waiting periods. To the dismay of gun proponents, the Supreme Court just refused to hear a challenge to California’s 10-day waiting period.
There are few, if any, settings in which someone needs to obtain a gun instantaneously. Enacting a waiting period might create a brief inconvenience for someone purchasing a gun for a legitimate purpose, like hunting, but it could also save a life: A suicidal person should not be able to walk into a gun shop, buy a weapon, and leave. Some states are already exploring experimental programs to get suicide-prevention training and materials into gun shops and ranges, creating another point of intervention, but blocking instant purchases could be highly effective.
It’s undeniable that the United States needs to take meaningful steps to prevent gun deaths. Rampage killings capture the bulk of the attention, but the use of guns in intimate-partner violence, unrelated homicides, and suicides should be cause for grave concern. While Congress continues to limit the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence thanks to the Dickey Amendment, there is enough information from other sources to understand that the guns/mental health narrative advanced in the media in the wake of mass shootings is wrong, stigmatizing, and ultimately unhelpful.
To meaningfully address gun violence, we need to reduce the number of weapons in circulation overall, and cut down on weapons sales to people likely to harm themselves or others. The trinity of universal background checks backed by better databases, waiting periods, and gun-storage laws could radically reduce gun violence in the United States. These are basic lifesaving measures akin to requiring people to wear seatbelts, and they’re not dependent on broadly stigmatizing 20 percent of the population.
Rather than demonizing mentally ill people for mass shootings, the United States should be talking about the real risk with guns and mental health: That it’s too easy for suicidal people to obtain guns to shoot themselves, leading to nearly 22,00 preventable deaths every year. Until the conversation about gun violence can be reframed onto actual, rather than mythological, risks, needless gun deaths will continue.