Op-eds, Opinions

Israel ’21, Rock ’19: Guns are not a mental health issue

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In the wake of every mass shooting in this country, there are two responses: 1) We need stricter gun control legislation, and 2) we need to improve the mental health of U.S. citizens.

Both of these statements are true, but one is far more relevant to the urgent issue of gun violence in America.

Psychiatrists and researchers agree that the link between mental illness and mass shootings is weak, if it’s there at all. There are a lot of statistics to be thrown around here. When accounting for substance abuse, childhood maltreatment and living in adverse environments, researchers found that the mentally ill were actually less likely to be the perpetrators of violence than the general population. If someone were to magically cure the United States of bipolar disorder, clinical depression and schizophrenia — the three mental illnesses with the highest proclivity for violence — violence in the nation would only decrease by 4 percent. Only 1 percent of gun homicides are mass shootings committed by people with mental illnesses. And contrary to popular perception, people with mental illnesses are 14 times more likely to be the victims of violence in the United States than to be the perpetrators of violence.

The obvious question is, if these mass murderers aren’t mentally ill, what could possibly motivate them to commit such horrible acts? Whereas an analysis of 235 mass killings from 1935 to 2014 revealed that less than a quarter of mass killings are committed by people who could be considered mentally ill, people with a history of domestic abuse have committed over half of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016. The Sutherland Springs shooter: history of abusing women. The Las Vegas shooter: history of abusing women. The Orlando shooter: history of abusing women.

Another strong indicator of gun violence is a history of a hateful presence on social media or membership in hate groups. Why are we talking about Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz’s mental health instead of about the swastikas found carved into his magazines? Why was the Charleston shooting a “random act of violence” and not an act of terrorism? If Second Amendment advocates want to blame anything but guns in the aftermath of mass shootings, they should be looking at domestic abuse and white supremacy, not mental illness.

Of course, the best way to tackle gun violence is with gun control legislation, according to many major studies. Banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, preventing concealed carry on K-12 school grounds, strengthening background checks. These measures are, thankfully, being proposed in many states, but unfortunately they’re not the only policies being seriously considered or put in place.

An example of a policy that misses the point can be found right here in Rhode Island. On Monday, Feb. 26, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order establishing a statewide “red flag” policy. The order, part of a larger push for gun control legislation since the Parkland, Florida shooting last month, directs law enforcement to consider what the order calls “red flags” in assessing whether a person is dangerous. According to the text of the order, these factors “include but are not limited to the following red flags:

i. Recent acts or threats of violence by the person against self or others, including statements, videos or photographs posted on social media sites;

ii. A pattern of prior acts or threats of violence by the person against self or others;

iii. The criminal history of the person, including arrests and convictions for crimes of violence, whether felonies or misdemeanors, and crimes involving domestic violence, stalking or harassment;

iv. Previous no-contact orders, restraining orders or protective orders issued against the person;

v. Unlawful or reckless use or brandishing of a firearm; and,

vi. Evidence of recent acquisitions of, or ready access to, firearms.”

Current, or a history of, mental illness is correctly left off this list. But again, this list is not comprehensive — deciding what constitutes a “red flag” is left to law enforcement agencies and officers, making people with mental illnesses — and, frankly, people of color — vulnerable to discrimination. We should be looking at policies that keep the focus on guns rather than scapegoating people with mental illnesses.

Other states have instituted policies that focus on mental health at the expense of effective gun legislation, or are planning to. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has proposed legislation that would ban people with mental illnesses from buying firearms, and he recently signed a law passed under the mantle of protecting our schools from gun violence — a law that includes a provision appropriating $69 million for mental health assistance in schools. Again, we absolutely do need more mental health support in our schools and communities, but to finally fund these things because of a local school shooting blatantly blames people with mental illness for the horrific actions of individuals. This increases the stigma around mental illness already perpetuated by the language we use to talk about mass murderers: “psycho” and “sick” and “crazy.” What’s the point of these policies if they won’t actually prevent mass shootings? When trying to end gun violence in the United States, our focus shouldn’t be on mental health — it should be on domestic abuse, white supremacy and gun control.

Jenna Israel ’21 and Julia Rock ’19 are members of the Brown Progressive Action Committee and can be reached at jenna_israel@brown.edu and julia_rock@brown.edu, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



  1. armatus rebellio says:

    Banning assault weapons:
    In 2015, 252 people were killed with rifles. Assault or otherwise.
    There are over 8 million AR style rifles in America.
    “But they can fire so FAST!”
    Events last about 10 minutes. One person is shot/killed every 15 seconds.
    Rate of fire is meaningless.
    How is this common sense?

    large-capacity magazines
    The Parkland School shooter used 10 round magazines because they fit in his backpack.
    You say “You can rush him when he’s reloading”
    No, you won’t. You’ll be scared out of your mind.
    Transitioning from run/hide to fight takes time.
    You say “He’ll have to reload more often”
    It takes about a second and a half to reload.
    Events last about 10 minutes. One person is shot/killed every 15 seconds.
    Magazine capacity is meaningless.
    How is this common sense?

    preventing concealed carry on K-12 school grounds
    Have you forgotten the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990?
    Do you think the Parkland shooter cared?
    Some states have allowed concealed carriers to store their weapons in their cars.
    Some states allow faculty and staff to carry.
    The general populace us not allowed to carry on school grounds or at school events.
    In short, it already exists, and is meaningless.
    How is this common sense?

    strengthening background checks
    By strengthening do you mean enforcing existing laws?
    The police doing their job?
    The school district, the local police, and the FBI let you down in Parkland.
    The government let you down in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
    The FBI let you down in Columbia, SC.
    No other mass shooter to date would have been stopped by background checks.
    They either purchased them legally, WITH a background check, stole them, or used a
    straw buyer (who in all cases served no time)
    How is this common sense?

    None of these measures are ‘common sense gun laws that will reduce gun violence.”
    They are, at best, security theater designed to make you feel good. Like you’ve done something. When the next mass shooting happens you’ll say “existing gun laws weren’t strong enough” and call for more, common sense, meaningless, legislation.

  2. Man with Axe says:

    In China there have been a number of mass stabbings. From Wikipaedia: “A series of uncoordinated mass stabbings, hammer attacks, and cleaver attacks in the People’s Republic of China began in March 2010. The spate of attacks left at least 25 dead and some 115 injured. As most cases had no known motive, analysts have blamed mental health problems caused by rapid social change for the rise in these kinds of mass murder and murder-suicide incidents…”

    Obviously, the real issue is knives, hammers, and cleavers, and not mental health.

    Most of the mass shooters who anyone actually took notice of, such as Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Nikolas Cruz, Omar Mateen, Nidal Malik Hasan, Charles Carl Roberts, Eric Harris, and Seung-Hui Cho were all mentally disturbed.

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