March 14, 2016 Vineet Tummala
Gun Violence vs. Mental Illness
Gun violence has been in the news frequently over the past few months. Some examples are recent mass shootings, including the attacks that killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California; ten at Umpqua Community College in Oregon; and nine in Charleston, South Carolina. Many people, especially politicians, are quick to assume that the perpetrators of these events suffer from mental illness. In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act, which prohibits former mental hospital patients from purchasing guns. In 2013, New York enacted the Safe Act, which required mental-health professions to file reports on patients that appeared harmful to society. This law seized the guns of more than thirty-four thousand people. Last year after the Oregon shootings, presidential candidate Donald Trump stated, "This isn’t guns; this is about mental illness." According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 46 percent of respondents believe that mentally ill patients are more dangerous than other people and a recent Gallup poll shows that 80 percent of the people surveyed feel that mental illness is at least partially to blame for mass shootings.
However, this popular view is wrong. Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University, examined over ten thousand individuals and come to the conclusion that mental illness alone was only the cause of 4 percent of violent incidents. Swanson points out that illegal drugs and alcohol are the main reasons for violence attacks. It has also been found that a history of repeated incidences of violence is a cause for most mass shootings. A person who committed a violent crime in the past is likely to commit another violent action in the future. That is why Swanson and many others believe that gun prohibitions should be based on records of violent behavior rather than mental health.
It is interesting to note mentally ill patients are more likely to cause harm to themselves than other people. Studies show that the risk of suicide is ten to twenty times higher among those with certain mental illnesses, such as depression or bipolar disorder, than the general population. However, firearm restrictions should not be based on this statistic. While prohibitions on selling guns to the mentally ill may save a few lives, the focus of these restrictions should be placed on people with violent behaviors. Politicians and authorities need to move from placing constraints on mentally ill patients to restraining people with histories of violent actions.