Statistically, Most Mass Shooters Don’t Look Like This

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File photo provided by the Pima County Sheriff's Office showing Jared Loughner, who carried out the shooting rampage in Tucson that killed six people and wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.

As of Oct. 15, 2015, according to Everytown.org, there have been 153 school shootings since 2013. That number is insane. Click on this map to see a geographic representation.

According to the website, a school shooting is defined as:

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…anytime a firearm is discharged inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds, as documented by the press and confirmed through further inquiries with law enforcement.

What are not insane — usually — are the shooters. Of course, to listen to the pro-gun lobby, pro-gun politicians and ill-informed news commentators, mass shooters must be mentally ill, so if we simply kept guns from crazy people, we’d have no more of them. See how easy that is? Just lock up your kid after his first conversation with his invisible friend! One recent post in my Facebook feed said it’s not guns that kill, it’s people holding guns that kill people But pointy-finger gun action while yelling “Pow Pow Pow” doesn’t cause mass murder.

Guns do.

The whole excuse of mental illness is fallacy — it’s low-hanging fruit that the gun lobby clings to. They think the broad use of the term “mental illness” is a panacea — a way to sufficiently stigmatize the mentally ill so that the public feels safer. National Rifle Association-backed politicians are the best at this. They always say that it’s not the regular gun owner, per se, who is the problem, it’s the crazy person who should have been locked up by his parents. How could a family not know their kid was howling at the moon, nuts? How could no one have seen madness in his eyes? It’s their fault for not paying attention! The pro-gun lobby has an immense incentive to push the notion that only a shooter with severe mental illness could purposely open fire to kill and maim people. Sane gun owners would never act like that. Unless, of course, they’re legally able to carry guns into bars, because everyone knows alcohol and guns go together like drunk housewives and Bravo.

Well, these shameless shills could not be more wrong. In December 2012, shortly after Newtown, Dr. Richard A. Friedman set the statistical and scientific record right in The New York Times:

…there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.

He continued:

….All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

In the rare cases — the four percent — in which the mentally ill are dangerous, Friedman noted that they are far more dangerous to themselves than to others, and most dangerous to family members and people they know, not the general public.

Time after time, pundits and pro-gun politicians ask how we can “target” people with mental illness who could access firearms. Good question. The problem is that, nearly in the same breath, they consistently reject any responsible background checks that could uncover those individuals with documented mental illnesses or who have been admitted to hospitals or institutions for treatment.

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Last February, the American Journal of Public Health published a study by Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish (both of Vanderbilt University) titled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms.” They identify four “central assumptions” that typically arise after a mass shooting:

  • Mental illness causes gun violence.
  • Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens.
  • US mass shootings “prove” we should fear mentally-ill loners.
  • Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass shooters, gun control “won’t prevent” future mass shootings.

The authors detail how focusing solely on mental illness ignores those factors that do predict gun violence. Based on research, facts and analysis, the four signs that predict gun violence are:

  • Drug and alcohol use.
  • History of violence.
  • Access to firearms.
  • Personal relationship stress.

Here’s a quote from Metzl and MacLeish to think about:

People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths.”

Friedman’s article, meanwhile, also quotes Dr. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, and an expert on mass murderers:

Most of these killers are young men who are not floridly psychotic. They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage.

Last October, The Gun Writer, a really open-minded gun blog, talked about a survey by the totally, ahem, unbiased National Shooting Sports Foundation, which explained the results this way:

For political reasons, many involved in gun control activism would like to re-define the criminal misuse of guns into a public health issue. We commissioned this survey to help determine where Americans stood on this issue. To put it plainly, they don’t buy it. And given the 20-year reduction in violent crime that the FBI reports, even as the number of firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens has increased, they shouldn’t buy it.

I guess you cannot dispute the facts of a survey conducted by a totally unbiased organization claiming more than 80 percent of respondents believe the CDC should not get involved in gun violence. Or, for the rest of us who live in reality: a pro-gun organization surveyed their members and found they don’t think gun violence is a public health problem. Sounds about right.

Whether Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is mentally ill is another story entirely.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: not mentally ill but committed to a fallacy.

How can we get an overall picture of gun violence, mental illness and the root causes of mass shootings?

Good question. The motto of the Centers for Disease Control is: “Saving lives, protecting people.” Yet it was stopped cold from conducting any studies into the proliferation of gun violence in America back in 1996 when the NRA told their Congressional yes-men to block any gun-related research funding for the CDC. And the NRA-backed legislators did as instructed. By studying how violence spreads and how it could be prevented, lives could have been saved. Instead, for the last 19 years, the NRA has killed more people.

In 2013, President Obama signed an Executive Order allowing the CDC to reboot its gun research. Great, yes? Well, not really. Because of the damage and scare tactics during the last 17 years, the CDC is still so gun-shy of the GOP and the NRA that they won’t consider a 100 percent return to studying gun violence. It won’t take the chance of having the rest of its funding yanked by a political party holding a gun to its head.

Nor has the bullying hasn’t stopped.Obama requested $10 million for the CDC’s gun violence research in his last two budgets — Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced bills supporting the funding — and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives said no. Of course.

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Mental illness is a serious problem. It is hard to spot, complicated to treat, but easy to use as a red herring in the face of death. US gun violence is an epidemic: every day, approximately 39 people die by a gun. If that number were reflective of deaths by virus, or affected only kids or grandmas who bake cookies, this country would be horrified. We’d band together to find a cure. We stopped polio, measles and bad dental care. But for some reason, Americans love their guns more than the Americans their guns kill. I won’t get into the fact that most pro-gun people are “pro-life” because I can’t back that up with facts, just my gut instinct.

Mass shootings will not stop until we understand why they start. Is it easy access to guns? The solitary anger of the young, white male? Is it a form of insanity? Is it that we’re immune to death and guns and violence? If the CDC returned to studying the problem, they will likely find, as other researchers have, that mental illness has very little to do with it — unless you’re talking about the mental illness of the NRA.