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Research Continues to Shed Light on Our Confusion Over Gun Violence and Mental Health

Posted February 19, 2019

Soon after mass shooting incidents occur, people inevitably make links between gun violence and those with mental illness. They assert that if individuals had more consistent access to mental health care, these tragedies wouldn’t happen.

However, research continually shows that gun violence is a complex, confusing issue and that it’s too simple to say people with mental illnesses are always to blame.

Firing a gun. Image credit: Rudy van der Veen via, CC0 Public Domain

A Conclusion Contrary to Popular Belief

Researchers studied more than 650 young adults in Texas and looked for a link between mental health problems and gun violence. They published the findings in Preventive Medicine, and the results will likely surprise many people.

The research examined participants with a range of mental health disorders, as well as details about their firearm possession, demographics and other specifics. Dr. Yu Lu, the study’s lead author, confirmed that the study did not find a strong connection between individuals with mental illnesses and an increased likelihood of engaging in gun-related violence.

Instead, the researchers discovered that access to guns raised the likelihood of using them for violence much more than mental health problems did. For example, people with access to guns were more than 18 times more likely to use them to threaten others than those who did not have access to guns. “Counter to public beliefs, the majority of mental health symptoms examined were not related to gun violence,” Lu said.

Other Studies Show Similar Findings Regarding Mental Illness

The recent study in Texas is not the only one that fails to find that mental illness substantially raises the likelihood of gun violence. Another study researched more than 10,000 people in three cities and found that the one-year percentage of attributable risk of violence from individuals with mental health issues was only about four percent.

Also, a study published in 2015 looked at mass shootings and the likelihood of individuals with mental illness to commit them when a researcher maintained a database on the subject. It determined that only about 22 percent of the people in the database labeled as mass shooters had mental illnesses. As such, it’s far too big of a leap to quickly blame individuals with mental illness for most mass shootings. Doing so increases the stigma that those with mental illnesses already face.

Too Much Variation Exists

One of the likely reasons that people often attribute mental illness to gun violence is because they want answers for why something happened. Indeed, journalists must look at stories from all angles, and doing that means answering “Why?” or at least attempting to find answers.

Another issue is that the investigations of some mass shootings have revealed that the perpetrators had mental health issues. People are then quick to assert that all individuals who carry out gun violence are mentally ill, which is simply not the case.

Similarly, it’s not appropriate to make massive generalizations about gun owners and their reasons for wanting to own firearms. For example, statistics indicate that 12 percent of gun owners view their firearms as skill builders and want to become more proficient with their guns. This may well be a valid reason to own one, but it’s a factor not often brought up in the media.

These examples demonstrate why it’s so short-sighted to put either individuals with mental illness or gun owners in boxes that fit others’ beliefs.

Individuals With Mental Illness More Likely to Suffer Violence

There’s another aspect that people often don’t bring up when covering the topics of mental illness and gun violence: Individuals with mental illness are at least three times more likely to be targets of violent acts than perpetrators of them. This finding shows that the conclusions some individuals want to reach about violence in those with mental illness are not as easily obtained as they seem.

The Answers Won’t Come Easily

In the United States especially, gun violence has become commonplace to the point that mass shooters regularly commit horrifying acts and leave people reeling. In the aftermath, individuals strive to make sense of what happened. Far too often, they look for the solutions that seem “obvious” to them, such as that preventing people with mental illness from having access to guns would make a big difference.

However, as the first study covered here indicated, the theory doesn’t hold up. As people look for answers to describe the reasons behind the uptick in mass shootings, they must take care not to wrongly accuse entire groups, whether that’s gun enthusiasts or people with mental illnesses. The answers are not so clear cut.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes


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