We often fear what we don’t understand, which may explain why those struggling with behavioral health issues face an unfair stigma. TV shows and movies add to the problem, regularly featuring characters that reinforce the mistaken idea that the mentally ill are violent or harmful in some way. The media joins in too, implying that mental health status is a main predictor of gun violence, something that isn’t based in fact.

We’ve all seen it happen. In the aftermath of a mass shooting on US soil, assumptions fly, suggesting that mental illness causes gun violence, that psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime, that shootings represent the deranged acts of mentally ill loners and that gun control can’t keep us safe from these attacks.1

The numbers don’t lie, though. Studies shows that mentally ill individuals are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators. When erroneous assumptions like this go unchecked, real damage is done, helping the public to make a very dangerous connection between “mentally ill” and “violent threat.”1 The fact that it’s not true doesn’t seem to matter.

In the days following the tragic 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the US media diagnosed shooter Adam Lanza with schizophrenia. Adding fuel to the fire, conservative commentator Anne Coulter provocatively proclaimed that “guns don’t kill people, the mentally ill do.”2 Then National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre added his voice, blaming “delusional killers” for violence in the United States, while calling for a national registry of persons with mental illness.

While public safety needs to be the primary concern, legislation based on dubious claims is harmful. In the months following the shooting, a number of states passed bills that required mental health professionals to report “dangerous patients” to local officials, who would then be authorized to confiscate any firearms that these persons might own. It’s easy to agree that “people who have mental health issues should not have guns,” as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters after a bill passed the New York Senate, but the issue is more complex.

Convenient Scapegoats

Behavioral health issues are wide-ranging and can produce a vast array of symptoms, so equating the mentally ill with violence makes no sense. A new Vanderbilt University study agrees. Published in the American Journal of Public Health by Dr. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish, the report finds that an isolated focus on mental illness is misguided.2

“Gun discourse after mass shootings often perpetuates the fear that ‘some crazy person is going to come shoot me,’” said Metzl, the study’s lead author. “But if you look at the research, it’s not the ‘crazy’ person you have to fear.”

In their article, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms,” Metzl and MacLeish analyze data and literature linking guns and mental illness over the past 40 years. They found what many mental health experts already knew: that despite societal pre-conceived notions, most mentally ill people are not violent.1 In fact, fewer than five percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness, they found.

Misdirecting Blame

The focus on mental illness after horrific, yet statistically rare mass shootings misdirects people from the bigger issues tied to preventing gun deaths in the US. There are approximately 32,000 gun deaths in the United States every year, people are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths. With that in mind, we should set our attention and gun policies on these everyday shootings, not on the sensational events.

While the focus on mental health screenings for gun owners may be beneficial, a psychiatric diagnosis alone is not predictive of violence. Many who fit the profile will never commit a crime, and expecting mental health providers to be able to prevent the next massacre is unrealistic.

What factors do predict gun violence?

  • Drug and alcohol use
  • History of violence
  • Access to firearms
  • Personal relationship stress

The authors argue in the paper that lawmakers and voters should pay much more attention to mental health systems such as access to mental health care, medication and health insurance.2

1. Metzl, Jonathan M. MD, PhD, and MacLeish, Kenneth T., PhD. Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms; American Journal of Public Health, 2015.
2. Wolf, Amy. Mental Illness Is The Wrong Scapegoat After Mass Shootings, December 2014.