The ACTUAL SCIENCE Linking Mental Illness and Gun Violence

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You know, I’m tired of talking about divisive, hot-button political issues. Let’s talk about something that’s just pure, uncontroversial science. Let’s see, let’s just crack open Preventative Medicine and here we are: “The temporal associations between gun violence and mental health.” Ah, shit.

So yeah, this is that age old question: with 30 mass shootings so far this year (and it’s the first week of February), does the US have a gun problem, or a mental illness problem? Are these just “crazy” people who would be out in the world trying to murder regardless of what weapon they have, or these perfectly sane people who wouldn’t have tried to kill anyone if they didn’t have access to guns? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

And that “mass shooting” statistic is only one fun fact about the US and guns. I could also point out that Americans own more guns per capita than anywhere else in the world — yes, even more than Switzerland, ignorant Reddit commenter I happened to see the other day. Switzerland comes in 19th with 28 guns for every 100 citizens. Meanwhile, the US has (are you ready for this?) 121 guns for every 100 citizens. 1.2 guns per person! Holy shit, and I don’t have any, so somewhere there are people just opening a junk drawer to find a paper clip and there’s just guns jammed in there. Maybe you think that that’s just because of a few Americans who stockpile guns (which there are — 3% own 50% of the guns) but even if you subtract them from the equation, that’s still 170 million guns for 317 million people, so more than half a gun per person and more than twice Switzerland’s rate.

Here are some more stats. 64% of all homicides in the US happen with a gun, compared to under 5% in England, that guns killed nearly 40,000 people in the US in 2017, or that that was the most people killed by guns in the US in the previous 20 years — until 2018, when we topped that number by 1,000, which became the highest number in 50 years. It’s absolutely a problem, and it would be nice to get to the bottom of it which is why it’s quite sad that the US government has refused to fund its study for the past 20 years, which has led to even private industry dialing back all study of it.

Luckily, we still have little pockets of scientific rebels out there, so we get research like this. Unfortunately, I have to be honest, it’s not that much.

Yes, their conclusions were that there is no connection between mental illness and gun violence, but it’s actually much narrower than that. This research involved surveys of 663 young adults in Texas, who were asked about their history of mental illness along with their history of gun ownership and usage. They found that gun owners were 18 times more likely than non-gun owners to threaten someone with gun violence. They didn’t find that people with mental illnesses were more likely to threaten people, except for those people who had “high hostility,” who were 3.5 times more likely to threaten someone.

From this, the researchers’ university came up with the press release headline of “Mental illness not to blame for gun violence study finds”. Which…come on guys.

I get just as annoyed as any other evidence-loving progressive when the media touts “mental illness” as the sole cause of gun violence in the US, which happens after every mass shooting (with enough mass to even make a blip on the national news). But this study does not prove that mental illness isn’t to blame for gun violence, in the least. It didn’t even examine actual gun violence — it only looked at people’s self-reported tendency to threaten someone with violence.

That’s not to say the research is useless — it’s definitely an interesting piece of the puzzle, and deserves follow-up. It’s just not what the University of Texas public relations team would have you believe.

Because in fact, mental illness is to blame for gun violence, in part. It absolutely cannot be denied in any reasonable way that the two aren’t related. Everyone is quick to equate “gun violence” with “mass shootings,” but there are other forms — for instance, suicide. Half of all suicides in the US involve a gun.The majority of all gun deaths in the US are suicides — two thirds. Suicide by gun is 8 times more frequent in the US compared to all other industrialized nations. It’s a huge fucking problem, and I guarantee that a huge percentage of the people committing suicide have a mental illness. They’re not all 90-year old patients with painful, incurable cancer. They’re severely, dangerously depressed people.

Does that mean that this is wholly a problem of mental illness, and not guns? No! It’s both, obviously. People try to commit suicide in other ways, and less than 5% of them succeed. The people who use a gun succeed 85% of the time. If those severely mentally ill people didn’t have access to guns, we’d save about 21,000 American lives each year, just from suicide alone.

That’s one of the main reasons I don’t personally own a gun. I’ve talked about this before, because a few years ago I was regularly getting serious death threats and I was very concerned with my safety. But I know I have very bad depression, and I know that owning a gun would make it 3x more likely for me to kill myself (and 2x more likely to be killed by someone else).

So yeah, in one survey of some 20-somethings in Texas, people were more likely to threaten someone with a gun if they own a gun, and not more likely to do so if they have a mental illness. But that doesn’t mean there’s no connection between the two, and acknowledging that we have several interconnected problems doesn’t make it any less urgent for us to control the Great American Gun Problem.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. > They found that gun owners were 18 times more likely than non-gun owners to threaten someone with gun violence.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but why would this be surprising? Why would you threaten someone with gun violence if you don’t have a gun?

    1. Why the phrase “gun violence” is more harmful than useful.

      Anyway, 1.21? How many do you need?

      At a bare minimum, suicides would be a case for psychological counseling. Accidents, not so much; you really need education there. (And not movies. Seriously, no matter how many guns are in movies, I’m convinced no one in Hollywood has ever so much as held one.) Homicides, maybe some background checks? And throw illegal dealers in prison, perhaps?

  2. Hey MRAs, one thing that Rebecca didn’t mention is that men have a higher rate of completed suicides because men use guns way more than women! So if you want to save men, work on gun control, it’ll save men’s lives!

    And then fuck outta here with most of the rest of your shit.

  3. I have been reading up on gun violence as it pertains to homicide, suicide, and mass shootings. 85% of homicides are committed by men, 77% of suicides between 1999-2016 were committed by men, and 96.2% of mass shootings have been committed by men or boys. While there is a connection between mental illness and gun violence, it pales in comparison to the connection between masculinity and gun violence. The connection between all these kinds of killings and masculinity is so accepted, so ubiquitous, so right in front of our noses, we, as a species, have overlooked it. We shouldn’t. Masculinity is a construct, something people made up, something we teach and learn and causes great harm to all. If we are going to prevent homicide, suicide, and mass shootings, all interventions that don’t address the root cause, masculinity, will fall short. The largest demographic of gun owners in America are Christian white men, the very same group that is in a high state of reactionaryism regarding affronts to their perceived privilege and that prevents the second most effective intervention in preventing these horrors, gun control. You can see how masculinity must be countered if we are to get anywhere meaningful in these matters.

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