Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms – PMC

    In the United States, popular and political discourse frequently focuses on the causal impact of mental illness following mass shootings. For example, the US media diagnosed shooter Adam Lanza with schizophrenia in the days after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. “Was Adam Lanza an undiagnosed schizophrenic?” asked psychology today.1 “spear killing acts . . . strongly suggest undiagnosed schizophrenia,” added the new york times.2 conservative commentator anne coulter provocatively proclaimed that “guns don’t kill people, the mentally ill do.”3

    Similar themes permeated political responses to newtown as well. At a controversial press conference, National Rifle Association President Wayne Lapierre blamed “raving killers” for violence in the United States, while calling for a “national registry” of people with mental illness.4 Meanwhile, in the months after the shooting, a number of states passed bills requiring mental health professionals to report “dangerous patients” to local officials, who would then be authorized to confiscate any firearms they found. these people might possess. “People who have mental health issues shouldn’t have guns,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters after the New York Senate passed one such bill. “they could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people.”5

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    Such associations make sense on many levels. Crimes like Newtown, where Lanza killed 20 children and 6 adults with a military-grade semi-automatic weapon, seem beyond the bounds of sanity: who but an insane person would do such horrible things? And, of course, scripts linking guns and mental illness emerge after many mass shootings in the United States, largely due to the psychiatric backgrounds of the shooters. Reports suggest that as many as 60% of perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States since 1970 displayed symptoms including acute paranoia, delusions, and depression before committing their crimes. specializing in schizophrenia” before he opened fire in a packed theater. 8 classmates felt unsafe around jared loughner because he was “randomly laughing out loud at meaningless things” in the weeks before he shot us congresswoman gabrielle giffords and 6 others at a rally in front of a supermarket in tucson, arizona.9 lance “struggled with basic emotions” as a child and wrote a story “in which an old woman with a gun on her cane kills senselessly.”10 isla vista, california, shooter elliot rodger suffered of Asperger’s disorder and was taking psychotropic medications.11

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    It is undeniable that people who have shown violent tendencies should not have access to weapons that can be used to harm themselves or others. however, notions that mental illness caused a particular shooting, or that advanced psychiatric care could prevent these crimes, are more complicated than they seem.

    We accessed key literature from fields such as psychiatry, psychology, public health, and sociology that address the connections between mental illness and gun violence. We obtained articles through extensive searches of online English-language psychiatry, public health, social science, and popular media databases, including psychinfo, psychiatryonline, pubmed, scopus, and lexisnexis. search terms included keyword combinations of terms such as guns or firearms with terms such as mental illness or schizophrenia, with a time frame of 1980 to 2014. we also conducted manual online searches for specific authors, organizations, and media outlets that produced relevant research on these topics (although not peer-reviewed, investigative journalism and online archives proved to be important secondary sources that often operated outside of regulations limiting firearms research.12, 13) Finally, we tapped into our own primary source for historical research on race/ethnicity, violence and mental illness, 14 and us gun culture. uu. 15-17

    From this review, we critically address 4 core assumptions that frequently arise after mass shootings:

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    Each of these statements is true in particular cases. the evidence strongly suggests that mass shooters are often mentally ill and socially outcasts. improved psychiatric care may well prevent certain crimes. and, to be sure, mass shootings often shine a light on the need for greater investment in mental health support networks or better state laws and procedures regarding access to guns.18

    At the same time, the literature we examined suggests that these seemingly self-evident assumptions about mass shootings are fraught with problematic assumptions, especially when read against current and historical literature addressing guns, violence, and mental illness more broadly. At the aggregate level, the notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a large and diverse population of people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies the links between violence and mental illness. notions of mental illness that arise in relation to mass shootings often reflect broader cultural issues that are obscured when mass shootings replace all gun crime and when “mentally ill” ceases to be a medical designation and becomes becomes a sign of violent threat.

    Anxieties about insanity and gun violence are also infused with often unexpressed anxieties about race, politics, and the unequal distribution of violence in American society. In the current political landscape, these tensions are most clearly manifested in the discourse surrounding controversial “stand your ground” laws. “It’s not about standing your ground,” read a headline on, “it’s about race.” 19 Our analysis suggests that similar, if less overt, historical tensions pervade discourses linking guns and mental illness in ways that subtly connect “crazy” gun crime with often unspoken assumptions about “white” individualism or “black” community aggression.

    Again, it is understandable that we, policymakers, journalists, and the general public, look to psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines as sources of certainty in the face of the often incomprehensible terror and loss that inevitably cause mass shootings. This is especially the case in the current political moment, when the links between shootings and mental illness often seem to be the only points on which divergent voices in the contentious national gun debate agree.

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    however, our brief review ultimately suggests that this framework, and its implicit promise of mental health solutions to ostensibly mental health problems, creates an untenable situation in which mental health professionals increasingly become the people more empowered to make decisions about gun ownership. and the most responsible for failures to predict gun violence. Meanwhile, public, legal, and medical discourses are increasingly moving away20 from speaking broadly and productively about the social, structural, and indeed psychological implications of gun violence in the United States.

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