Kill on the scale of El Paso or Dayton, or Parkland, or Las Vegas, and the shooter must be crazy or sick, the thinking goes. Thus, in the wake of deadly mass shootings, elected officials and others often talk about “a mental illness problem.” President Trump said last week, “These are people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”
The president told the nation in his televised address, “Mental health and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun.” The Texas governor described mental health as “a large contributor” to “shooting violence.”
If such concern leads to expanded treatment for mental illness, the country will benefit, mental health care still a long way from parity. Yet it bears repeating that the country’s mass shooting problem, and its larger one with gun violence, are not about mental illness. The vast majority of those with a serious mental illness are not violent. They are more likely to be the victims of violence.
As Terry Russell, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio, stressed last week, some with a severe mental illness who do not receive treatment are at a greater risk of violent behavior. Yet research shows they account for a tiny share of violent crime — around 4 percent of the total.
As with other people, those with a severe mental illness may be more prone to violence if they have a substance abuse problem or were abused as a child or live in highly adverse circumstances. Without such factors present, they actually pose less risk of violence than the population as a whole.
The concern about mental illness at the front in the discussion of mass shootings is not just the inaccurate portrayal. The words add to the stigma, or prejudice toward mental illness. They discourage people from seeking help. Families and friends are more likely to choose silence. That isn’t a good outcome when one in five people suffer from a mental illness.
That ratio applies around the globe, and it reinforces the importance of getting right the factor of mental illness. Other countries have similar mental health landscapes, yet they do have anything close to the same levels of mass shootings or gun violence.
So something else must be at work. In that way, it is worth reiterating, as a report in Vox did last week, that when it comes to overall violent crime, the rate here is below the average for 15 peer countries. France and the Netherlands, for instance, have higher rates of assault. Where our country stands out, as hardly surprises, is the number of homicides by gunfire, nearly 30 per 1 million people, according U.N. data from 2012.
The second highest country is Switzerland at 7.7. Canada has 5.5, with Germany at 1.9.
What explains the big difference? It is hard to avoid the number of guns in circulation here. As Vox noted, the Small Arms Survey has found that Americans have 120.5 civilian guns per 100 people. In this instance, war-torn Yemen ranks second with nearly 53. France and Germany count roughly 20. The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population yet nearly one-half of the civilian-owned guns.
Guns are available, and research shows more guns mean more gun violence.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, in the aftermath of the Dayton slaughter, talked about “a deeper problem.” The Cincinnati Republican asked: “Why are these people living in their own universe where they become so hateful and violent that they would commit these unspeakable acts?” The question deserves attention. Experts cite such factors as rage, grievance and seeking to assert power.
What then enters the equation is the lethal component, easy access to guns, a powerful weapon soon in hand, bloodshed to follow.
A consensus seems to be forming in Ohio and elsewhere around “red flag” legislation, the courts with authority to remove temporarily guns from those proved to be a threat to themselves and others. This step has been more effective in preventing suicides, the largest contributor to gun deaths. Apply background checks to all guns sales is another step winning more favor, finally. The simple concept: Keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Yet in the end, guns are the problem. They are readily gained, and already in abundant supply. That adds up to our many gun deaths.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.