Gun violence and mental illness: Study addresses perception vs. reality

June 12, 2014 by Stuart Wolpert
Gun violence and mental illness: Study addresses perception vs. reality
Vickie Mays. Credit: Reed Hutchinson

(Medical Xpress)—Recent mass killings in Isla Vista, California, and elsewhere have again raised concern among lawmakers and the media about the possible connection between mental illness and gun violence. A new study sets the record straight and recommends an evidence-based approach to limiting firearms fatalities.

A group of international scholars, including co-author Vickie Mays of UCLA, analyzed dozens of epidemiological studies on and mental illness and compared the results to media-fueled public perceptions about the dangerousness of mentally ill individuals.

The researchers found that mass murderers with problems, while they receive a tremendous amount of media attention, are not typical of those who commit violent crimes, and the vast majority of those with serious mental illness do not engage in violent acts.

Still, the study authors stress, gun violence can be reduced by instituting policies at the federal and state level that prohibit firearms possession among individuals who display clear risk factors for violence.

The new research is published online in the journal Annals of Epidemiology and will be published in an upcoming print edition.

"We need more evidence-based policies to effectively prevent gun violence," said Mays, a professor of psychology and health services who directs the Center for Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities in the UCLA College. "We also need to expand and improve access to treatment—some people are slipping through the cracks. But mental illness is not the main cause of violence in society. Policies should focus more on limiting access to firearms for people with behavioral risk factors for violence during specific times when there is evidence that risk is elevated."

An evidence-based approach to gun control

A history of violent behavior, especially with criminal justice involvement, and other behavioral indicators of risk are much stronger predictors of future gun violence than having a serious mental health diagnosis, the researchers say, echoing the findings of the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy, a group of national experts on gun-violence prevention and mental illness that released a set of federal and state policy recommendations in December 2013.

Such risk indicators include being subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order, having been convicted of a violent misdemeanor, having two or more driving-under-the-influence convictions in a five-year period, and having two or more controlled-substance convictions in five years.

The researchers' analysis supports additional recommendations by the consortium, including the development of state mechanisms allowing law enforcement officers to confiscate guns from individuals who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others, and to request a warrant for the removal of guns when the risk of harm is "credible," if not immediate. In addition, the consortium suggests that family members and intimate partners be able to petition the court to temporarily authorize gun removal and prohibit gun purchases by individuals who pose a credible risk of harm to themselves or others.

On the federal level, the researchers' findings support the consortium's suggestion that the government clarify and refine policies dealing with gun disqualification for individuals who have been involuntary committed for mental health reasons, and state laws should be strengthened to prohibit gun purchases or possession following a short-term involuntary hospitalization. The consortium also recommended a clinically informed judicial process for restoring gun ownership rights following their removal based on evidence of risk of harm.

Those with mental illness far more likely to harm themselves

While improving in the U.S. is a critical goal, the researchers say, it is important to understand that improving such care will not solve the problem of gun violence in America.

"We do need better mental health care in America. An estimated 3.5 million people with serious are going without treatment every year," said Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "But even if schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression were cured, our society's problem of violence would diminish by only about 4 percent. A person with serious mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator."

Mental health disorders are much more strongly linked to self-harm or suicide than to violence against others. A very small proportion of people with serious mental illness pose a threat to others, the researchers stress, and gun violence and mental illness intersect only on their margins, they said.

Approximately six of every 10 gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, which points to failures in both the mental health care system and firearms regulation, according to the authors.

"The public mental health system in most states is woefully inadequate—fragmented, overburdened and underfunded," Swanson said. "It shouldn't be harder for a person in a suicidal mental health crisis to get treatment than to get a handgun."

The researchers also note that accurately predicting who will commit mass killings is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Citing a 2012 review of 73 studies on the accuracy of psychiatrists' predictions of violent behavior in their patients, they said that prospective risk-assessment by mental health professionals is only slightly more accurate than flipping a coin.

Some states already authorize law enforcement agents to temporarily remove guns from homes in the case of domestic violence, say the researchers, who urge Congress and the states to take sensible steps to reduce gun violence.

"The right to bear arms is not unlimited and must be balanced with public safety concerns," said Mays. "Our project was about using data to inform policies that will be most effective in reducing firearm-related injury and mortality, while respecting the rights of lawful gun owners.

"We're asking, can we step back and use the best data to help rein this problem in?"

"In the current environment, where guns have become a radioactive political symbol, one can only hope that a risk-based approach to limiting firearms would emerge as at least one square inch of common real estate between those who are most concerned with the individual right to bear arms and those inclined toward greater regulation of guns in the public interest," Swanson said. "We desperately need a place to start."

Mays initially organized the team for this study as part of the American College of Epidemiology's policy case study series.

Co-authors of the research are E. Elizabeth McGinty, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Seena Fazel, a psychiatrist at England's University of Oxford.

Explore further: Physicians urged to consider gun-related violence in elderly

Related Stories

Physicians urged to consider gun-related violence in elderly

July 9, 2013
(HealthDay)—Physicians must consider their role in restricting gun-related violence among the elderly and those with mental illness, according to two ideas and opinions pieces published in the July 9 issue of the Annals ...

Almost half of US population lives in jurisdictions that strengthened gun laws in 2013

March 21, 2014
Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia strengthened their gun laws in the year following the Newtown school shooting, accounting for roughly half (44 percent) of the U.S. population.

APA report on gun violence identifies precursors and promising solutions

December 12, 2013
There is no single personality profile that can reliably predict who will use a gun in a violent act – but individual prediction is not necessary for violence prevention, according to a comprehensive report on gun violence ...

ACP offers policy recommendations for reducing gun-related injuries, deaths in US

April 10, 2014
A new policy paper from the American College of Physicians (ACP) offers nine strategies to address the societal, health care, and regulatory barriers to reducing firearms-related violence, injuries, and deaths in the United ...

Media coverage of mass shootings contributes to negative attitudes towards mental illness

March 20, 2013
News stories about mass shootings involving a shooter with mental illness heighten readers' negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness, according to a new report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of ...

Recommended for you

Curcumin improves memory and mood, study says

January 23, 2018
Lovers of Indian food, give yourselves a second helping: Daily consumption of a certain form of curcumin—the substance that gives Indian curry its bright color—improved memory and mood in people with mild, age-related ...

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jun 13, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1.5 / 5 (2) Jun 13, 2014
"We desperately need a place to start." There in lies the problem. With the media and propaganda from the government everyone hears the words "Place to start" and they wonder to what end? The first place that line of thinking takes them is to a total ban. You have people in power getting on the total ban soap box and people in forums like this one making ad hominem attacks on everyone involved. You have people making statements that members of the NRA should have their kids die of cancer ect. The two sides can't even communicate without threats of violence. It always seems to end with "We will come kick your doors and shoot your kids and take your guns" and "Come on and I'll give them to you bullets first". You have to get past that to have a place to start.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 13, 2014
Steven Torrey... Really? Get a grip on yourself man! You were obviously swayed by the article of misinformation by alleged 'experts' ('ex' = a has been AND 'spurt' is a drip under pressure). There are millions of guns out there... if there were so many 'nuts' then why are killings in the US falling per capita? Also, the article states that those with mental illness are 'more than likely to hurt themselves'. I come from 4 generations of American gun owners and not one of us has committed a crime, hurt another, etc. with a gun... You are allowing emotions to rule your intelligence... Unfortunately this is how America operates... passing laws to protect the weak and stupid, instead of addressing the real problems. Your dribble does little to affect those of us with a brain.
2 / 5 (1) Jun 13, 2014
The problem with the study is it does not address the root question. With more than 20,000 "common sense" gun laws on the books, why are these violent acts sill being committed? There are number of answers most of which boil down to lack of respect. Lack of respect for the law and lack of respect for human life. Both of these items can and should be taught at home and in church. The ten commandments are a good set of basic rules for any organized society. All religions have these in one form or another. Respect for the law has been diluted by the passage of so many laws. Passing more will not raise respect for the law when it is impossible to walk down the street in many locales without breaking the law. Even law enforcement is hard pressed to know what they can enforce. I doubt if the shooter in the school shooting in Oregon knew he was breaking so many laws. I will List a few: murder, attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, possession of guns and ammo .
1 / 5 (1) Jun 13, 2014
The Oregon school shooter broke many laws. I will list some: murder, attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft, carrying a concealed weapon, weapons on a school bus, weapons in a gun free zone, under age person in possession of guns and ammunition. There are probably more, but that will do for now. How many more laws would it take to prevent this crime?
3 / 5 (2) Jun 13, 2014
Every one of these school mass murderers are not only mentally unstable/ill, they are also violent video game addicts. That combination seems to be the problem. Guns are not the problem. Like knives, they are only the tool.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2014
Guns are never the problem, are they? And that's why some of us just aren't very surprised anymore..
not rated yet Jun 14, 2014
Yes, the line "need a place to start" certainly destroyed the study's and the article's credibility. It's exactly these extreme "agendas" that make any real solution so unlikely. IMO, America's problem with violence stems from the cultural desensitization to violence and abuse, combined with over-the-top hero worship. Our entertainment industry, news media, and government continually send the message that the instant fix to any problem is force and/or violence. And damn the consequences. The irony is that the total gun ban agenda advocates are expressing the same desire to solve the problem with abusive force over another's freedoms. And so it goes.
P.s; I have no stake in this and don't own a gun.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.