Debate around gun control suggests mental illness is the cause of violence. It’s not.

The vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses are not violent, but the stigma persists.

A single rose is left at the door of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in Las Vegas, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017.  CREDIT: AP/John Locher
A single rose is left at the door of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in Las Vegas, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. CREDIT: AP/John Locher

In the wake of a mass shooting, people all over the political spectrum appear to agree on one thing — people with mental illnesses are responsible. In fact, it’s one of the few gun control policies that align both Democrats and Republicans.

The majority of both Republicans and Democrats say that people with mental illnesses should be prevented from purchasing guns, according to a Pew research poll conducted last spring. A 2013 survey found support for these restrictions was popular among both gun owners and non-gun owners. One in five Americans live with some kind of mental illness.

Although some progressives use people with mental illnesses to argue for gun control, conservatives often use people with mental illnesses to take the focus off of gun control. Either way, stigmas about people with mental illnesses are used for political purposes, despite the fact that the vast majority of them are not violent. There simply isn’t evidence to suggest people with mental illnesses should be a major focus of the gun control debate.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and members of the Trump administration have focused their attention on people with mental illnesses to distract from conversations about gun control. After a man opened fire late Sunday night on an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 59 people and injuring 527, Speaker Ryan said on Tuesday, “One of the things we’ve learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness.” Ryan added that “mental health reform is a critical ingredient” to preventing tragedies like the one in Las Vegas. Ryan did not mention gun control legislation.

On Tuesday, NBC News obtained White House talking points about gun control related to the shooting. The documents read, “And when it comes to gun control, let’s be clear: new laws won’t stop a mad man committed to harming innocent people,” adding “… we shouldn’t rush toward compromising our freedoms before we have all the facts.” The document also says that some of the remaining information the White House must learn from investigators is whether the shooter had a mental health issue. On Tuesday, Trump said the killer, Stephen Paddock, was a “sick, demented man with a lot of problems,” implying that he was mentally ill, despite the fact that there is very little known about Paddock or his mental health.


But despite its focus on mental illness as the culprit behind mass shootings, Congress recently repealed an Obama-era rule that would have stopped some people with mental illnesses from buying guns. Trump signed a bill in March that blocked a rule allowing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to consider Social Security beneficiaries with psychiatric disabilities, who are assigned money managers for their benefits, ineligible to buy guns. In voting for the bill, Republicans have claimed that they don’t want to stigmatize people with mental illnesses, but Democrats argue that it was simply a convenient way to appease the powerful National Rife Association. As Republicans’ return to a focus on mental illness as the real culprit, they simultaneously support health care bills that leave people with mental illnesses without care.

After the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut shooting, which led to the deaths of 20 children and six elementary school staff members, the NRA called for a “database of these lunatics,” later celebrating Congress’ and Trump’s decision to block the rule. The Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, had an untreated mental illness.

All of this outrage on both sides ignores the evidence on whether people with mental illnesses are often violent and on how frequently they use firearms. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, wrote in a February Op-ed for The Washington Post that the rule, while well-meaning, isn’t based on evidence and was far too broad.

“What the policy actually does is take away the gun rights of a large category of individuals without any evidence that they pose a risk of harm to self or others, and without legal due process protections commensurate with abridging a constitutional right,” Swanson wrote.

Swanson said there is a wide range of mental health conditions that could be included in such a rule and that it isn’t an index for whether someone can own a gun.


Swanson co-authored a 2016 Duke University study focused on two large Florida counties and found that people with serious mental health disorders were no more likely than the general adult population to use a gun against other people. In terms of death by suicide, those with serious mental illnesses were only slightly more likely to die in a gun-related suicide. Swanson writes that that politicians should consider restrictions applied to truly risk populations by looking at those with a history of violence or suicidal thinking, such as respondents to temporary domestic violence orders of protection or people detained in a short-term emergency during a mental health crisis.

Research has shown that most psychiatric disorders are not related to violence. A 2017 article from University of Pittsburgh researchers on the misconceptions about the connections between mental illness and violence found that mental illness is not a huge risk factor for violence. Even empirically based screening methods that could identify people with mental illness who are more likely to be violent than others “have limited utility,” according to the study.

In the case of Adam Lanza, a 114-page report from the Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate produced in the years before the shooting recommended ongoing expert consultation, therapeutic supports, and extensive special education supports for Lanza, according to The New York Times. Lanza’s mother also resisted efforts to put Lanza on any kind of medication.

In 2014, Dr. Harold Schwartz, chief psychiatrist at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living and one of the report’s authors, said at a press conference, “It’s not that his mental illness was a predisposing factor in this tragedy … It was his untreated mental illness that was a predisposing factor.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website states that the vast majority of people with mental health conditions are no more likely than anyone else to be violent. Only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to people who have serious mental illnesses, the department website states. In fact, those with mental illnesses are also much more likely to be victims of violent crime.


The media’s coverage of mass shootings plays a crucial role in the stigmatization of individuals with mental health problems. According to 2013 research study published in the New England Journal of Psychiatry, stories about shootings that use the supposed threat of the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely than anyone else to be violent in connection with gun control exacerbates negative attitudes about people with mental illnesses. Almost half of the people surveyed in a 2013 analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine said they believed people with mental illnesses are more dangerous than the general population.

The researchers concluded that, given the data on negative attitudes about people with mental illnesses, policymakers should focus on implementing gun control that is effective at preventing gun violence, but does not worsen stigmas about mental illness or discourage people from getting help for mental illness.