Gun Violence and the Mental Health Debate

Gun Violence and the Mental Health Debate

A Blog

Washington Premier Group

Once again the nation is torn over how to handle a tragic situation. Gun violence in America remains prevalent, in neighborhoods, domestic violence and most disturbingly - mass shootings of our children. Just since the start of 2018 there have been several instances in schools alone that killed over 20 people and injured even more[1]; but, instead of the country uniting and devising a plan, we instead find ourselves divided on the best course of action to take. While the political factions bicker with each other and make little to no improvement, the children across the country have taken it upon themselves to demand change – “out of the mouths of babes”.

On Wednesday, February 21, 2018, hundreds of students marched over 10 miles to Washington, DC in support of Parkland, Florida shooting victims marching on their own state capitol. These students, parents and teachers along with many others begged the questions of “How many deaths will it take? How many more mass shootings must there be before we fix the system?” Lawmakers in Congress continue to offer thoughts and prayers to families and victims, but they have failed to pass any legislation. In order to effectively implement policy that will prevent further school and mass shootings, Congress must come to an agreement on what needs to change.

The usual arguments are that the country needs stronger federal gun control laws like banning bump stocks and criminal background checks while the opposition comprised of 2nd amendment supporters argue that guns are not the problem and that the government cannot strip Americans of their right to bear arms. Another angle, however, that people often mention but rarely revisit is that the country lacks proper mental health care and treatment and that background checks that would prevent criminals from purchasing guns would not be able to properly screen for mental illnesses.

The President and several Republicans support the idea of requiring clearance from a mental health specialist before allowing someone to purchase a gun, but Democrats are quick to counter that the government should instead focus on gun control as the main issue, and not merely blame the mentally ill.  There is clearly a need to do address both issues.

Data on the number of mass shootings attributable to mental illness is difficult to find, so psychologists and gun control advocates struggle to back their views with statistical support. At a time where many are trying to end the stigma surrounding mental health, immediate reactions by the general population to assume shooters were ill and label them as “crazy” provides an argument to avoid addressing gun law reform. Sure, it is easy to say that nobody in their right mind would have the audacity to pull a gun on someone if unprovoked, let alone an entire school of young students, but many warn that automatically labeling all persons who conduct these heinous acts as mentally ill makes others living with mental illness afraid to seek help out of fear of judgement, or worse. Not every shooter suffers from Major Depressive Disorder, for example, and not every person with Major Depressive Disorder conducts a mass shooting. By connecting the two without proper statistics and education, we delay any chance of ending the stigma on mental health and any chance of passing policies that will diminish mass shootings.

When talking with a young adult who lives with Generalized Anxiety Disorder comorbid with other mental illnesses, I listened as she provided a take on these issues that seemingly encompassed all aspects under discussion[2]. The first question I asked her was whether or not she supports mental health screenings for people who want to purchase a gun, to which she immediately replied in agreement of such a measure. She went on to explain that not everyone is fit to have a gun, but that not all shootings should immediately be attributed to mental illness. Those without mental health challenges often fail to empathize with and understand those who struggle with them, frequently labeling these people as scary and violent instead of proposing policy initiatives that would fund more institutions and encourage our fellow citizens to seek help.

The big takeaways that Psychologists want society to embrace and that they have been trying to convey for decades is that those with mental illnesses are not a dangerous people because of their diagnoses. There are many violent people that do not have mental health struggles just as there are many who do have these struggles who are not violent. Instead of automatically associating gun violence with mental health, Psychologists and advocates believe that people need to be comfortable having conversations about mental health so that those with and without violent characteristics are comfortable seeking help and have it readily available.

By instilling background checks and mental health screenings before one can purchase a gun is a small step in the right direction and should not be considered over-burdensome on law-abiding gun owners. While many argue that these small precautionary measures would in principle become a slippery slope that could lead to limiting the Constitutional right, we are now at a tipping point, where those who have abused this right by their criminal act of taking the lives of more innocent school children for the rest of us not to do something about it.  

By: Ms. Sarah Vitellaro (WPG Staff Intern)




[2] C. Douglass, personal communication, February 23, 2018.