Gunviolence is plaguing the United States of America, seemingly more and moreevery day. With these increasing numbers comes even more opponentsto guns, but surprisingly, also more proponents. After every mass shooting or nationallyrecognized act of gun violence, one of the first things scrutinized is thesuspect’s mental health history. It is rather evident that the immediate accusingof mental illness is a diversion from the real problem at hand: lack ofadequate gun control. A multitude of epidemiological studies overthe past twenty years have shown that the majority of people with severe mentalillnesses are not any more likely to be violent or criminal than anyone else.
In fact, people with severe mental disorders are more susceptible and over 10times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes.Only approximately 3 percent to 5 percent of violent doings are attributed topeople living with a serious mental illness, according to the United StatesDepartment of Health and Human Services.1 Alongwith this, the United States has a significantly less percentage of mentallyill citizens compared to Britain, yet 40 times the gun deaths.2 Additionally,current research suggests that there is a minimal correlation betweenpsychiatric disorders and violent crimes. Mass shootings by those living with seriousmental illnesses represent less than 1 percent of yearly gun-related killings.
3 Inalmost every mass shooting in the past 5 years, the acts committed reflectlarger cultural prejudice and socio-demographic factors, such as race/ethnicity,politics, and social class. Due to this mistaken notion that there is acorrelation between violence and mental health, stigma has significantlyincreased and mental health programs have significantly decreased.According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program DirectorRobert Glover, there is no one area of mental health care that we can targetand expect to prevent tragic events. Instead, states and local municipalitiesshould aim to provide a full sprectrum of accommodations, including accessibleresidential care, inpatient and outpatient care, emergency services andaffordable medication.4 Thepurpose of mental health laws is to provide proper treatment to persons withmental illnesses: not get stuck on the goal of keeping guns out of their hands. Theremust be sufficient safeguards in place in addition to adequate health care and increasedaccessibility.
In this paper, the mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Columbine,and the most recent Las Vegas shooting will be placed under the microscope toanalyze whether or not mental illness truly played a role and what could havebeen done to prevent these catastrophic events. Current mental health care, program budgetcuts, and their consequences will be addressed as well.It will be argued that significant reform needs to occur within current statemental health laws to increase funding and provide more accessible andencompassing programs. There must be significantly better solutionsto reduce gun violence.
These measures must be taken immediately as numbersof gun violence are rising in the United States at a rapid rate.These processes can and must include increasing and improving accessibility to mentalhealth care and services, ensuring all mental health care treatment servicesand programs are adequate and up-to-date, and attempting to alleviate anyconfusion or fear from friends and families of those with mental health issues.This requires distributing satisfactory resources equally throughoutcommunities and rewriting gun legislation to focus on treating mental illnessesproperly rather than criminalizing mental health.
OnDecember 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanzahad been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a developmental disorder that affects one’sability to socialize and communicate: a high-functioning form of autism.Unsurprisingly, the media immediately went after autism and Asperger’s as aviolent disorder. There is little evidence to suggest that people withautism or Asperger’s are any more likely to be violent compared to the rest ofthe population.
Children with autism have been seen to reactunpredictably, sometimes aggressively, on occasion, but those outbursts are almostalways directed at themselves, says Lauren Elder, a clinical psychologist withAutism Speaks. These “violent acts” are the result of frustrationstemming from attempts to communicate and not being able to properly conveytheir needs or discomfort.5 “Toimply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than1.5million law-abiding, nonviolent and wonderful individuals who live with autismevery day,” the Autism Society said in a statement following the devastatingattack in Newtown.6 Unfortunately,ever since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, stigma against not only autism, butmental health in general, has significantly increased.In addition to this and cutting back state and local funding, a new study bythe journal of Aggression and Violent Behavior claims to have found a linkbetween mass violence and autism.
The study does indeed discover a small link,finding that out of 106 mass killers, 28 percent had “definite, probably, orpossible” autism. However, it also concluded that over half of thesurveyed population experienced some sort of “psychological stressor” such asphysical or sexual abuse.7 Thisfurther supports the argument outlined in this research that there is nosignificant correlation between mental illness and violence.It has been found in various studies that the greatest factors leading toviolence are substance abuse and exposure to a psychological stressor ortraumatic experience, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or exposure toviolence at an early age. Regardlessof the nature of the mental illness Lanza was struggling with, there is noexcuse for the “armory” he had open access to in his household.Mental illness would be not linked at all with violence if there were moreprecautionary measures taken to prevent guns from ending up in the wrong handsin the first place.
Twoteenage boys entered their high school in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999,killing 15 people: twelve classmates, one teacher, and themselves.Beyond their meticulously developed plan to shoot their classmates, they alsocame prepared with a fire bomb to distract firefighters, 99 explosive devices,including car bombs and propane oil bombs in the cafeteria.Immediately after the shooting, media outlets started desperately digging for amotive, jumping from depression to anxiety to evil, but ultimately landing onbullying.
Several experts in criminology and criminal behaviorhave found various physical and situational factors that mass shooters have incommon. Jack Levin, professor of criminology and sociology atNortheastern University, has affirmed that most of the people who wouldhypothetically fit the category of a murder will never actually commit heinouscrimes. 8 More often, the offender has experiencedprolonged strain or frustration. This can include exposure to violence orsexual assault as a child.
Mostimportantly, in relation to the Columbine shooting, offenders were usuallybullied, harassed and ignored during their time in school.9 Bullyingwas perhaps the single paramount factor that caused Eric Harris and DylanKlebold to materialize one of the deadliest school shootings in America.The two students were thought to be extremely smart or “gifted,” havingactually attended Challenging High Intellectual Potential Students program.Studies have shown that approximately two-thirds of “gifted” childrenexperience some type of bullying, which often leads violent thoughts.10 ChadLaughlin grew up with Dylan Klebold and considered him and Eric two of his bestfriends. He remembers bullying being a primary factor in theboys’ isolation and outlined one encounter the boys had with bullies.It involved older boys throwing ketchup-covered tampons at them and callingthem names in the middle of their school commons1112. Thisis just one example of the bullying Klebold and Harris were subject to duringtheir high school years.
Undoubtedly, bullying does not justify such aviolent act, especially one as heinous as the Columbine Shooting, but shedslights on why they did what they did and gives insight into the minds of thekillers. Comparing and contrasting Columbine to modern-dayshootings, such as Sandy Hook and the Las Vegas shooting, gives an idea of howdifferent the media reactions were then compared to now. Now,mental illness is the immediate explanation, even when it is no explanation atall.Another example of a shooting where the perpetrator had no mental illness wasthe Las Vegas shooter. 64-year-old Stephen Paddock rented a hotelroom and shot at the attendees of a country music festival in Las Vegas,killing 58 and injuring 500 others.
Like all other gun tragedies, most of themedia and gun advocates point to mental health in a reaction response. Aprime example of this and the generalizations surrounding mental health wasevident in Cabinet meeting shortly after the shooting took place.President Donald Trump told reporters, “I guess a lot of people think theyunderstand what happened, but he was a demented, sick individual…the wires werecrossed pretty badly in his brain. Extremely badly in his brain.”13However, Paddock’s autopsy report revealed just the opposite. Anexamination of his brain revealed no abnormalities, the Las Vegas sheriff reportedto the Las Vegas Review-Journal.14 Additionally, two Federal Bureau ofInvestigation officers said they did not believe Paddock’s mental health hadever declined enough to perform this act of violence, moving mental health downon their list of possible explanations. This is all exemplary of the majority ofmass shootings and gun violence: mental health is not a dominantly sharedcharacteristic.
Mentalillnesses are one of the number one scapegoats the media and gun advocates useafter a mass shooting. Yet interestingly enough, current statemental health laws and national mental health care are receiving less and lessfunding. Between 2009 and 2012, local mental health funding wascut by 4.35 billion.15Minimizing the accessibility to mental health care and life-saving servicesultimately leads to adverse effects of the patients, their families, andpotentially communities. Not only by increasing stigma and creatingan unsafe environment for those suffering with mental illness to ask for help,but recent gun legislation blames mental illness for increased gun violence;yet does nothing to amend current mental health laws or add additionalpreventative or treatment programs.
16An example of restrictive gun control legislation that disadvantages those withmental illnesses is the National Instant Criminal Background Check SystemImprovement Amendments Act that President Bush signed into effect in 2008.The doctrine provided financial rewards to incentivize states to administerinformation regarding people categorized as a “mentally defective” or arecurrently/have been committed to a mental institution.The act also authorized various grants to further states in upgrading their gunlicense background check systems.17 Thistype of policy adds to the misguided notions that the mentally ill areinevitably violent by nature- an assumption that has been proven otherwise.
Thisinherently creates an extremely misguided stigma towards those suffering with amental illness. The majority of those living with mental illness arelaw-abiding citizens who have not and will not ever commit a violent crime.Present-day research has suggested that there is little to no correlationbetween psychiatric conditions and violent crimes. Mass shootings by those living with mental healthailments make up less than 1 percent of yearly gun-related killings.18 Themajor determinants of violence are socio-demographic factors, such as being oflower socio-economic status, having experienced or witnessed violence, homelessness, and mostcommonly, substance abuse.
19Those with substance disorders are major contributors to community violence,accounting for as much as a third of self-reported violent acts, and seven outof every 10 crimes of violence among mentally disordered offenders. Asaforementioned, those suffering with mental illnesses are more commonly thevictims of violence, despite the public misconception that there is a distinctcorrelation between mental health and violence. Reform is greatly needed in the health andhuman services fields.
States and local municipalities must aim atproviding full ranges of accommodations, including but not limited toaccessible residential care, inpatient and outpatient care, emergency servicesand inexpensive medication.20The purpose of mental health policies and legislation should be to providetreatment to persons with mental illnesses. Additionally, there must be protections inplace to safeguard those who suffer from mental illness, in addition to sufficientmental health care and improved accessibility. Lastly, school shootings were less likely tooccur in the states that require mandatory background checks for gun licenses,purchases, and ammunition.
These states also placed more emphasis onmental health services and early education.21This is exemplary of the immense impact strengthened gun policies and increasedmental health education would have on states and cities all over the nation. Within the United States, there hasbeen a systematic and rapid growth of mental health stigma and victimization. After the Newtown shootingat Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun control opponents have chosen to point thefinger at mental illness following every devastating attack on American soil: despite various studies andsurveys supporting the fact that there is no significance correlation betweenmental illness and extreme violence. Infact, those with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence. In the cases that theperson in question is violent, the harm is usually aimed at themselves.22 Theissues contributing to the increase in gun violence are faults in federal,state, and local gun control laws, including flawed background check processesand lack of comprehensive training. Improvingour nation’s mental health is becoming less and less of a priority, outshinedby misguided attempts to prevent the mentally ill from acquiring guns.
Creating a link betweenmental health and violence minimizes the incentive and ability for thoseseeking treatment to receive the help they need. Before placing the blameon the citizens struggling with mental illness, states and local municipalitiesmust begin educating constituents and place emphasis on preventative measuresthat will significantly rude the possibility of crime within communities.23 Themajority of violent acts committed reflect larger cultural issues andcontrasting socioeconomic statuses, rather than mental illness. It can be seen throughoutthis paper that the shooting at Sandy Hook acted as a catalyst towards a sortof fear towards mental illness, making it the go-to culprit for every massshooting. Theteenagers who committed the mass shooting at Columbine High School were neverlabeled criminally insane and had no reported past of mental illness.
Similarly, the Las Vegasshooter had no history of mental illness and never participated in anyquestionable behavior that was reported. Asaforementioned, individuals with serious mental illnesses contribute to lessthan 3 percent of all violent crimes.Additionally, current research suggests that there is an insignificant connectionbetween mental illnesses and violent crimes.
Lessthan 1 percent of yearly gun-related killings ass shootings are committed bycitizens with mental illnesses.24 Yet,despite the numbers, mental illness is continuously used as a scapegoat inmodern America, in an attempt to divert attention away from alarming numbers ofgun violence and unenforced gun restrictions. Thereis much that needs reform within gun control legislation and policy-making, butthe most important measures that must be taken are increasing accessibility tomental health care services and treatment, while ensuring that treatment inadequate.
Rapidlyattempting to find an answer in the aftermath of a tragedy is an expectedresponse from all parties involved, including the media, political parties, decisionmakers, and the general public.However, this trigger reaction cannot be executed in a way thatdisproportionately disadvantages an entire, innocent population of citizens. The stigma and lack ofproper mental health care only leads to less successful treatment and possiblymore detriment to communities throughout the nation.