Mass Murder and Mental Illness

Oct 13 2017

Mass Murder and Mental Illness

Last week in Las Vegas, we witnessed the worst mass shooting the nation has seen yet, as 58 people were killed and hundreds of people were injured. Since the attack, the government is busy taking a stand on mental health treatment, yet avoiding discussions on gun control.

“Mental-health reform is the critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things that have happened in the past,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said to reporters, appearing in the Huffington Post last week.

After the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, President Obama signed into law a piece of legislation that made it harder for some mentally ill people to get a gun. Basically, the law said that people who were deemed “mentally incompetent” had to go through an FBI background check in order to buy a gun. Jonathan Nicholson from Bloomberg BNA asked Ryan why the Republicans in Congress rolled back this regulation last February. Ryan’s response? “Protecting people’s rights were very important, and that’s what that issue is all about.” How can the government in one sentence say reform is necessary, and in another, say that we should have less regulations? And who defines which types of mental illness are more “dangerous” than other types?

Part of the problem is the misconception that all mass shooters are severely mentally ill. If only it were that simple.

It is without question that people who have shown violent tendencies should not have access to guns that could be used to harm themselves or others. However, the idea that mental illness caused any particular shooting, or that advance psychiatric or counseling care  might prevent these horrific events, is a complicated business, partly because a great majority of mass murderers are simply not insane.

Reviewing past mass murderers, there was some history of mental illness in people like Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook elementary shooting) or James Holmes (Movie Theater massacre), but none found in others, like the latest shooting spree of Stephen Paddock.

When reporters asked Eric Paddock if his brother Stephen had any mental illness, he told reporters, “No, not a bit.”

Just because we think someone must be insane if they are going to commit a crime like this, doesn’t mean they actually are mentally deranged and often times, even if they are, they don’t think they are, and are probably not seeking professional help, hence, no one is going to flag them from buying a gun.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, “less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.” So why blame the mentally ill? Maybe because Congress is unwilling to take a stand where they should, on gun control.

According to the Washington Post and homicide data collected by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and compiled by The Guardian newspaper, the U.S.’s annual gun homicide rate of 2.97 fatalities per 100,000 people is triple the rate seen in most of the world’s predominantly wealthy countries. Let’s face it, the United States has way too many guns.

We’ve already said most homicides are not committed by the seriously mentally ill, but there are, however, an awful lot of suicides being committed by the mentally ill. According to the CDC, in 2014, over 21,000 people committed suicide with a firearm. In fact, suicide is a major problem for mass murderers too. Many have committed suicide after their attack and maybe their goal was to “go out with a bang” taking lots of other victims with them.

If we are going to significantly reduce the number of gun deaths in this country, then maybe going through extensive background checks if someone has suicidal tendencies over other types of mental illness would be a good place to start. Ultimately, if Congress is going to focus on mental healthcare reform, they should include spending more money on suicide prevention efforts as that could save the greatest number of lives.