Why Mental Illness Is a Misguided Focus After Mass Shootings: New Study


The media and a nervous public tend to focus on untreated mental illness as a primary cause of gun violence after a mass shooting occurs, but two researchers find this focus is misguided.

Dr. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish analyzed 40 years' worth of literature and statistics relating mental illness to gun violence. The two discovered that after a mass shooting, people generally believe four things that their research shows is untrue.

Misleading Assumptions

The four false assumptions made in the wake of mass shootings are:

  1. Mental illness is a cause of gun violence.
  2. We should be fearful of mentally ill loners.
  3. A psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun violence before it occurs.
  4. Since the psychiatric histories of mass-shooters are complex, gun control measures will not prevent mass shootings.

Metzl and MacLeish emphasize that these four assumptions, while understandable, are not true.

What appears true, according to the study, is 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.”

What Goes Unnoticed

By focusing narrowly on mental illness, factors that broadly impact gun crime go unnoticed, including:

  1. Use of alcohol and drugs.
  2. A history of violent behavior.
  3. Access to firearms.
  4. Stress in personal relationships.

According to the research, the likelihood of being shot by friends, relatives, acquaintances, or enemies is far greater than being harmed by a violent lone psychopath.

Though the researchers do not minimize the horror of mass shootings, they hope people will realize our perception of the bigger gun-crime problem is distorted by our fear of the unknown stranger.

Stopping the Violence

In their article ”Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms” Metzl and MacLeish point out that our skewed perceptions related to gun violence and mental illness foil efforts to prevent gun crime.

“Basing gun crime-prevention efforts on the mental health histories of mass shooters risks building ‘common evidence’ from ‘uncommon things,’ all while giving mental health providers the untenable responsibility of preventing the next massacre.” said Metzl and Macleish.

“We should set our attention and gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime.”

There are about 32,000 gun deaths per year in the U.S., most committed by people the victims knew.

Source: Science Daily
Photo credit:Martin Fisch / flickr creative commons


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