It’s not about mental illness. It’s about guns.
In 2017, there were over 350 mass shootings in the U.S. Barely over 50 days into 2018, there have already been 30 more. That’s thousands of lives lost. In fact, so many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country.
Whenever tragedy strikes, it provokes a halfhearted discussion about firearm reform and gun control. Advocates of new legislation cite the need for more comprehensive background checks, or pure bans of assault weapons. The NRA and its constituents reemphasize their Second Amendment rights. Both sides, however, agree on one thing: the need for mental health reform. I posit here that any argument advanced for the revitalization of our mental illness support systems is factually incorrect, and in fact detrimental to resolving the issue of gun violence in the country.
Before you jump to conclusions about my political ideology or stance on mental health, I’ll say this: I am a staunch liberal. I am also a firm advocate for reform of the American mental health system and its institutions. I am not convinced, however, that the time for it is during a discussion of gun control.
Here’s the cold, hard truth: the mentally ill are not responsible for the overwhelming majority of mass shootings, no matter how many politicians (including our president) say they are. While it flies in the face of traditional rhetoric surrounding gun violence, it’s been statistically proven and verified by a surplus of academics, researchers, and experts in the field. Take, for example, this study conducted at Duke University. Sociologist and psychiatric epidemiologist Jeffrey Swanson, in an analysis of the percentage of perpetrators of mass shootings also suffering from mental illness, came to this conclusion: if you were to suddenly cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression overnight, violent crime in the US would only fall by four percent. Psychiatrist Michael Stone has also verified this statistic through his own research at Columbia. By maintaining a meticulous database of mass shooters, Stone was able to conclude (in 2015) that only 52 out of the 235 killers on record – about 22 percent – were mentally ill. Most recently, American Psychological Association (APA) President Jessica Daniel summarized the issue nicely when she reminded listeners in an interview to “remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.”
The truth is, current emphasis on mental illness is purely political, and fundamentally detrimental to actual progress in the field. Pivoting to mental health issues after a mass shooting is, above all else, a classic conservative tactic. By redirecting public consciousness to other issues, gun owners and their representatives are able to shift blame on a subsection of our population in avoidance of the actual problem: guns. The rhetoric that mental illness is to blame for our exponentially high rates of gun violence is the same rhetoric used to justify maintaining the status quo, a move that has clearly failed to protect American lives.
Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does decidedly more harm than good. It does a disservice not only to victims of violence, but unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness. But perhaps more importantly, it does not direct us to functional solutions to the problem at hand: how to safely and effectively tackle the issue of gun crime in the U.S.