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.