Mental Illness as the Scapegoat for Gun Violence

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Mental Illness should not be the scapegoat.


In the wake of yet another mass shooting on American soil we are understandably looking for answers.  We hear the refrain not to “politicize” tragedy, but if our conversations are spurred by disaster in an attempt to stem the tide of more killings, what is the harm?  Are the victims and victims’ families offended that we use this as an opportunity to talk not just about this specific event but an alarming trend?


In what looks like an attempt to find an island in partisan waters, recent shootings have found a convenient scapegoat for the left and the right: mental illness.


Don’t blame guns, blame mental illness.  Don’t blame a society that treats rights like things to lord over others or as pawns in a political chess match.  Don’t blame a permissive society that has glorified violence in movies and video games.  Don’t blame the NRA or defense of the second Amendment.  Don’t blame the breakdown of families and social structures in place to care for those who need it.  Blame the mentally ill.


The mentally ill are unlikely to fight back.  We’re exhausted fighting our own demons.  We’ve spent our last drop of energy fighting sadness, mania, and social phobias.  So, when the President and news media find the “safe” answer in legislating more restrictions for the mentally ill instead of in the manufacturing and sales of lethal instruments you may have found an easy bipartisan target.


But the facts are not on your side.


Dr. James L. Knoll and Dr. George D. Annas have presented the following:


-           Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun related homicides.  In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths.

-           The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%.  When these crimes are examined in detail, and even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms.

-           Laws intended to reduce gun violence that focus on a population representing less than 3% of all gun violence will be extremely low yield, ineffective and wasteful of scarce resources.

-           Gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked.




Earlier this year, in an attempt to discredit the President a number of professionals in the psychiatric field attempted to diagnose Mr. Trump with a number of mental illnesses.  Forget the fact that these doctors had not personally examined the president, if you don’t like his policies you can blame mental illness.  For the 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from mental illness, we were being told that the alleged gross immoralities of a man in power were caused by a shared, chronic and tragic illness. 


And now with the race for the moral high ground, or the defense of the constitution, we find the mentally ill trod underfoot.


These killers may suffer from mental illness, and this might have a bearing on whether or not they are allowed to buy firearms.  But the media, in linking mental illness to mass shootings is furthering the narratives that have led to mental illness being stigmatized and thus less likely that the mentally ill will seek help.


We are scared because we don’t have answers to this kind of evil.  We are scared because our attempts at answering the problem is demonized on the other side of the aisle.  Please stop assuaging yourself by blaming mental illness and looking for answers among the ill.


Love the victims and their families.  Argue, even against your own interests or principles in the name of the vulnerable children.  Talk about mental illness, if pertinent, as a mental health issue and not a criminal offense.


Dan van Voorhis is the director of The League of Faithful Masks which produces the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast.  He received his PhD in 2008 from the University of St. Andrews and was recently a professor of history and political thought as well as Assistant Dean at Concordia University, Irvine.  He is the author of Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Things.

Daniel van Voorhis