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  • Michael Mullan

The Perceived Link between Mental Illness and Gun Violence is False

A new study, in the Journal Preventative Medicine, has confirmed what other previous studies have found – the perceived link between mental illness and gun violence is false. Access to guns is much more of a factor when it comes to gun violence, than the mental health of the offender. Despite the general fear towards mental illness, due to the perceived inherent dangerousness associated with illnesses such as schizophrenia (which was surprisingly not considered by the new study) and bipolar disorder, this fear is more of a myth. The authors of the new study found that mental health is not “at the root of gun violence”. The root of the problem is having access to a gun, which was found to result in a higher likelihood of carrying a gun and threatening someone with a gun.

An FBI study of 160 gun violence crimes found that almost 70% of perpetrators accessed guns in their own home or the home of a relative. Another key finding of the current study, was that impulsivity and hostility towards others as cognitive traits resulted in a higher likelihood to use guns. In terms of how to reduce gun violence, we need to address both of these issues: access to guns  on the one hand and impulsive, hostile and angry personalities on the other. Another driving force of violence is alcohol and substance abuse. Stigma towards the mentally ill generally increases after mass shootings due to the media’s, the NRA’s and politicians’ focus on mental illness being the problem.

In fact, those with a mental illness are more likely to be a victim of a violence rather than be a perpetrator. Persons with mental illnesses have been found to commit only 3% of crimes, with an even smaller number of these crimes involving guns. The author of another 2019 study, that came to the same conclusion that people with current access to guns were 18 times more likely to threaten others with a gun, stated that “If you look at all the gun-related killings in the United States, less than 5 percent of them were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.” That being said, there was a higher risk (60%) of the perpetrator of mass shootings being mentally ill. However, I would push back against this given that, an article by Knoll and Annas found that “mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths.”

Another reason why a focus on prohibiting access to guns for persons with mental illness, is that mental illness is fluid. As a 2018 article in the Washington Post points out, just because someone was institutionalized in a mental health facility in the past, does not mean they are currently a threat. A more general reduction in access to guns would be more effective than targeting and possibly discriminating against this particular group of people, i.e. the mentally ill. However, the NRA is opposed to more blanket changes to gun access laws as it would reduce their membership and reduce gun sales of their funders, whereas denying access to a small subsection of the population such as the mentally ill, would not have a drastic impact on membership or sales. Denial of the purchase of guns due to mental health reasons only occurs in 1% of purchases. A more appropriate and effective measure may be to temporarily restrict access to guns from people who indicate that they are at a heightened risk of violence towards themselves or others. 

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