“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” President Donald Trump said on Monday in a White House speech about weekend mass killings that left 31 people dead and dozens injured.
It was a compelling quote, but it wrongly pinned much of the blame for mass shootings on mental illness. This is dangerous for two main reasons: It wrongly stigmatizes the millions of Americans with diagnosed mental illnesses, who, research shows, are much more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, and it detracts attention from the difficult but necessary debate over guns.
“Despite the public, political, and media narrative that mental health is at the root of gun violence, evidence is lacking to infer a causal link,” two researchers at the University of Texas wrote in a recent article in the journal Preventive Medicine.
The researchers examined the associations between mental health conditions, namely anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, hostility, impulsivity and borderline personality disorder, and carrying a gun and threatening someone with a gun. Hostility was a predictor of gun threats, but the other conditions were not.
“Counter to public beliefs, the majority of mental health symptoms examined were not related to gun violence. Instead, access to firearms was the primary culprit,” they concluded.
According to research by the American Psychological Association, people with serious mental illness are responsible for only 3 percent of violent crime. They are 10 times more likely than the general population to be the victims of violent crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They are also much more likely to harm themselves than others, which is a reason to consider further limits on gun access to prevent suicides, which outnumber homicides in the U.S.
To be clear, some mass shooters — the killer at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, for example — had diagnosed mental health conditions. Many others have not.
This also does not diminish the need for more investments in mental health diagnosis and treatment, which is too limited and, often, too expensive.
So, if mental illness is not a predictor of violence, what is? Many of the perpetrators of mass shootings have said they were bullied and felt socially isolated; some endured childhood trauma. Their murders were a form of retaliation. Hatred and anger are not forms of mental illness.
More specifically, many had a history of domestic violence. Some had previously reportedly beaten or threatened girlfriends and family members. Some had been convicted of domestic violence, which should have prevented them, under federal law, from obtaining firearms. This highlights a serious shortcoming in the national system used for background checks for gun purchases.
There is also a correlation between alcohol abuse and gun violence. A 2017 study found that gun owners who had been convicted of driving under the influence and other alcohol-related crimes had a significantly higher risk of committing future violent crime.
Untreated mental illness is a significant problem in the US, as it is in many countries. But, blaming mass shootings, which occur much more frequently here, on mental illness is wrong and a diversion from the difficult debates we must have about real steps that will reduce gun violence.