“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,” President Donald Trump announced when he condemned shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which together left at least 31 people dead and dozens wounded.
What the president said about hatred rings true. But he is wrong in blaming mental illness.
As the father of an adult son with a mental illness and one of 14 nongovernment experts appointed by the Trump administration to a panel that advises Congress about serious mental illnesses, I’d like to recount some well-established facts.
It’s easy for the public to assume that anyone who commits mass murder is mentally ill. How could he or she not be? And several shooters in recent high-profile mass killings have had a serious mental disorder.
But the implication that the 46 million American adults estimated to have a diagnosable mental illness and the 11.2 million thought to have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are dangerous and potentially mass murderers is as wrongheaded as declaring that the 250 million Americans who are white are capable of committing mass homicide.
After all, being white is one of the most common traits of a mass shooter. Data from Mother Jones shows that between 1982 and 2017, 54 percent of mass shooters were white men. Research also shows that many of them struggle with a sense of entitlement attached to their white, heterosexual identity as well as economic anxiety in the post-industrial economy.
Other research, meanwhile, highlights that a very small portion of all gun-related homicides in the United States involve mass killings by people with serious mental illness. In fact, only 3 percent of violent crime can be attributed to people with serious mental illness.
As Amy Barnhorst noted in Psychology Today: “Most of the time, mass shooters aren’t driven by delusions or voices in their head. They are driven by a need to wield their power over another group. They are angry at the perceived injustices that have befallen them at the hands of others — women who wouldn’t sleep with them, fellow students who didn’t appreciate their talents, minorities enjoying rights that were once only the privilege of white men like them. It’s not an altered perception of reality that drives them; it’s entitlement, insecurity, and hatred. Maybe some of them also have depression, ADHD or anxiety, but that is not why they opened fire on a group of strangers.” This dovetails with profiles of such shooters as Dylann Roof, the then-21-year-old white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Hate is not a mental illness. Nor is white nationalism, as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney suggested. It is taught. It is promulgated. The FBI describes a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
As forensic psychiatrists James Knoll and George Annas warn, “Gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked.” Hate is fueled by such myths.
They further noted that “laws intended to reduce gun violence that focus on a population representing less than 3 percent of all gun violence will be extremely low yield, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources. Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Thus, databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by gun laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of people.”
I am not a psychiatrist, nor am I an academic or a sociologist. I am a father, just as the president is. I have witnessed how bias has and continues to make my son’s life difficult. I have seen how it encourages fear and prejudice against him and others who have an illness that they did not choose.
Conflating mental illnesses with mass shootings hurts people. It stigmatizes, marginalizes and creates bias. So please, Mr. President, just stop.
Pete Earley is the parent designate on the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee, created by Congress. The column was published in The Washington Post.