Lately there have been a ton of politicians explaining that the way to stop mass shootings is to prevent people with mental illnesses from getting guns. Since I happen to have a serious, lifelong, genetic mental illness (bipolar disorder), I have a few feelings about this. Mostly fury. Let me explain.
The idea that you can stop school shootings by taking guns away from mentally ill people is based on three assumptions, and they are all wrong.
Assumption #1: People with mental illnesses are unpredictable and/or violent.
Truth: Sane people commit 97% of violent crime. People with serious mental illnesses commit the remaining 3%.1 While there are a few mental illnesses (bipolar disorder and schizophrenia mostly) that are associated with a somewhat higher rate of violent crime, the majority are not, and the vast majority of people with the violence-associated disorders are also totally non-violent. (Like me.) People with mental illness are also FAR more likely to be victimized by violent crime as the average person – between 2.3 and 140 times as likely, according to a survey study of violence against the mentally ill2.
In other words: In a sane world, the mentally ill would fear violence from “normal” people, not the other way around.
Assumption #2: Someone who decides to shoot a bunch of kids at a school must be mentally ill.
Truth: “Evil” is not the same as “mentally ill”. You can be perfectly sane and still be horrendously evil.
Let’s unpack this a bit more:
First, nobody excuses terrorists as being “mentally ill”. They’re generally assumed to be sane. Evil, but sane.
So why are perpetrators of school shootings and other gun-related mass murders immediately assumed to be “mentally ill”? Because they are almost entirely white males. (Actually, I have yet to hear of a school shooting perpetrator who wasn’t a white male, but I might have missed something since I don’t track that kind of news that closely.) A non-white or Muslin shooter would be very unlikely to be given the same excuse – at least, not without an ironclad medical diagnosis.
White male mass murderers are presumed to be mentally ill because the alternative would be accepting the idea that some white male gun owners can be evil. There is a very large and politically powerful group of people who want you to believe that every gun owner, and particularly every white gun owner, is a Good Guy and would never shoot an innocent person, let alone several dozen of them. So as soon as a white male American commits a mass murder, they rush to explain that there must have been something seriously wrong with him, because Our Tribe is Good and therefore no sane member of our tribe would do this.
The desire to believe that one’s own tribe consists only of good people isn’t limited to white gun owners, of course. It’s a universal human phenomenon. But the assumption that a white male shooter must be mentally ill is not a medical diagnosis; it’s driven directly from the need to believe that your tribe is good. It’s an excuse to avoid examining your tribe closely. Because there couldn’t possibly be evil people in your own tribe.
Assumption #3: You can stop mass shootings by taking away the guns of people with mental illnesses.
First, mass shootings tend to be carried out by people who have serious social dysfunctions, anger issues, and explosive resentment against society. That does not mean that they have a mental illness. In fact, 78% of mass murderers were deemed sane (not having a serious mental illness) in a recent study3. .
Second, while about 22% of mass shootings are attributed to people later diagnosed with a serious mental illness 4. , very few mass shootings have been committed by people with previously diagnosed mental illnesses. This is important because, unless the potential shooter has been medically diagnosed, the state has no legal right to take his/her gun away. (Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter is the main exception, and under current law, he could have still bought weapons legally.)
Third, there are a lot of people with mental illness. According to the NIH (the U.S. government agency whose job it is to track these things), 18.3% of Americans have a mental illness.5 That’s 44 million people. Even if you restrict it to people with serious mental illness, that’s 4.2% of all people (in 2016), or about 10 million people. One third of those people go untreated in any given year, and 50% of the 18-25 year-olds (who are the most likely age range to commit school shootings) go untreated. Even trying to find and track all of us would be a logistical nightmare. Especially since diagnosis and treatment rates would plummet if being diagnosed were enough to put you on a government “list”.
(Fun fact: I spent two years trying to hide my bipolar disorder diagnosis, and paying cash for my treatment despite having almost no money, simply because I was worried about being unable to buy individual health insurance in the future. (At the time, health insurers would blacklist you for 20 years after your last treatment for bipolar disorder, so I would have not been able to purchase health insurance at any cost – even for totally unrelated medical issues.) If a diagnosis had meant being marked for life in a federal database, I probably wouldn’t have gone to a doctor and I would be dead by now. Something to think about.)
Current federal law (and no one has seriously proposed tightening it as far as I know) is essentially useless for preventing school shootings. Federal law only prohibits gun purchases by mentally ill people if they have either been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital after a 72-hour evaluation, or have been declared mentally incompetent. That is a really amazingly tiny fraction of people with mental illness. It wouldn’t have stopped any of the mass shooters to date, including Adam Lanza (who actually was diagnosed).
The people who are really in danger from mentally ill people with guns…
All that said, it is absolutely true that you could save a LOT of lives by taking guns away from everyone with a mental illness. In fact, you could potentially save up to 22,000 lives per year, which is over 5x as many as have died in all terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to date. In just a single year. Gun deaths would drop by an amazing 60-65% (!) if you took guns away from all us mentally ill folks.
Because those of us with mental illness, tragically, often do use guns to kill people. Ourselves.
About 50% of all suicides are committed with a gun6. While people attempt suicide in all sorts of ways, their choice of method makes a BIG difference in whether they are likely to survive. 82% of people who attempt suicide using a gun die7. It is the single most lethal method for killing yourself. By way of contrast, only 2% of people who try poison or overdosing die.8. This is REALLY IMPORTANT because 90% of people who survive a single suicide attempt do not go on to commit suicide later.9 The problem with guns is that they are extremely lethal, readily available, easy to use, and immediately fatal – you can’t change your mind halfway through the process. (This matters a lot, since suicide is often a short-term impulse,10 so the opportunity to reconsider saves a lot of lives.)
So – logistical problems aside – a huge number of lives could be saved by taking guns away from people with mental illness. However, I have yet to see any serious political concern over this horrifying death rate. Apparently it’s okay for us to die by the tens of thousands, but dang, as soon as some real innocent victims die, we’re dangerous and it’s totally critical to take all our guns away.
As a person with a serious, lifelong, genetically driven mental illness, I am really, really tired of being a scapegoat for people who don’t want to admit that members of their tribe can be evil. You can do horrible things without being crazy. And some of the most saintly people I’ve known have had terrible struggles with mental illness.
Yes, I have a mental illness. It’s a genetic, life-threatening disorder that can’t be cured, only managed. But having a mental illness is completely different from being evil.
- Guns and Mental Illness, Liza Gold and Robert Simon, 2015, Chapter 4, p. 90. Published by the American Psychiatry Association. Free access to Chapter 4 online here.).
- Severe mental illness and criminal victimization: a systematic review. Roberto Maniglio, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 2008. DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0447.2008.01300.x
- Mass Murder, Mental Illness, and Men. Michael H. Stone, Violence and Gender, Vol 2 #1, 2015. DOI: 10.1089/vio.2015.0006
- https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml. Accessed Feb 18, 2018.
- https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/ Accessed Feb 18, 2018. (Statistics drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2016.)
- https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/case-fatality/. Accessed Feb 18, 2018.
- https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/survival/. Accessed Feb 18, 2018.
- https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/duration/ . Accessed Feb. 18, 2018.