Uncoupling Gun Violence and Mental Illness

There was another mass shooting on the morning of Thursday, October 1. This time it was at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and the shooter was Chris Harper-Mercer. Nine people were killed. President Obama gave a statement in which he said “…it’s fair to say that anybody who does this has a sickness in their minds.” In a CNN article about the shooting, it says “Two officials said that after the shooting, the gunman’s family told investigators that he suffered from mental health issues and had sought treatment.” An article on oregonlive.com says “There are a number of indicators that Harper-Mercer had mental health or behavioral issues.”

It is absolutely not fair to say that anybody who does this has a sickness in their minds. It seems as though every time we see these horrific acts of mass violence saturating all of our news outlets, which is all too often, there’s significant focus on the mental health of the shooter. Why don’t we talk about how men commit about 90% of all murders? Why don’t we talk about the racial component? Why do we have to focus on mental illness?

Simple— it gives us something to blame. In actuality, women are up to 40% more likely than men to experience mental illness. Not only that, but mentally ill people are significantly more often victims of violence rather than perpetrators of it. Still, when all of these young men heinously murder people, all anyone wants to talk about is how ‘troubled’ they were.

Between January 1 and October 1, 2015, there were 294 mass shootings in the United States. Do you really want to tell me that all of those killers were mentally ill? 18.2% of adults in America are mentally ill. As of 2014, 80.7% of the U.S. population was age 15 or older. With a population of 318.9 million in 2014, that would mean we would have nearly 46.9 million mass murderers, or people with viable potential to become mass murderers. That doesn’t seem quite right.

Isn’t it so much easier, though, to blame mental illness than to face the fact that we have a gun violence problem? We know definitively that more regulations regarding firearms mean less violence. Let’s compare and contrast. The state of Hawaii requires a permit and a universal background check before someone can purchase a handgun. Handguns must be registered, there is no form of a “stand your ground law” in place, it’s difficult to get both concealed and open carry permits, and there’s a 14 day waiting period for obtaining handguns. Alaska requires no permit, no universal background check, no registration of the weapon, and no permit for concealed or open carry. As of 2013, Alaska has a “stand your ground” law, and there’s no waiting period for obtaining handguns. Unsurprisingly, Alaska has 17.2% more gun related deaths than Hawaii.

In our collective discussions of mass shootings, we talk endlessly about how tragic it is, how we’ll send love to the families of the victims, yet comparatively, we hardly talk about gun control at all. The exception to this, of course, being Republican politicians talking about how we don’t need more laws, we need to focus on mental illness, like Chris Christie this past August after two people were shot on live television. We don’t talk about the absurd ableism at play, and the way dismissing the motivations of the murderers by saying they were mentally ill contributes enormously to the stigma surrounding mental health and psychiatry in our culture.

We need to shift our focus and look at how to prevent people like Chris Harper-Mercer from accessing firearms, and we need to have an honest dialogue about the realities of mental illness and mental healthcare (which, by the way, is largely inaccessible in the United States) in order to take care of and protect ourselves and each other.



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