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Breaking Down The Myth Of Guns And Mental Illness

‘Most people with mental illness in the U.S. are not violent toward others.’

Mass killings are so horrific, it’s easy to assume—or decide—that the killers are simply insane. In addition to disrespecting the mentally ill, however, that knee-jerk reaction can often do all of us wrong, warping politics and policy alike.


The association of gun violence with mental illness knows no political boundary. While some see it as a way to avoid pushing for tighter gun control, others see it as a spur. In a speech early this year announcing new executive action on firearms, president Obama made the connection, famously weeping in remembrance of the child victims killed in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary. “For those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts,” he said, calling for a half-a-billion-dollar investment in mental care.

Image Via CC (Credit: Daniel Borman)

But no matter how much Americans could benefit from better mental health, the truth is more complicated than it’s so frequently made out to be. Experts like Johns Hopkins professor Beth McGinty have begun to debunk the idea that the mentally ill should face special scrutiny when it comes to the risk of mass shootings. Those suffering maladies like schizophrenia and severe depression, McGinty found, are no more likely to use a gun to kill others than anyone else. Instead, her research suggests, “most people with mental illness in the U.S. are not violent toward others,” and “mental illness is not a cause of most gun violence in the U.S.”

Given the level of vitriol and sheer gibberish spilled on the internet and across the media—with public figures like Donald Trump fanning the flames—there’s a reason many of us are so quick to say shooters are mentally disturbed. After all, even our unarmed public adversaries often seem, and sometimes truthfully are, “crazier” than ever. But that’s not the same as mental illness. And neither, as hard as it may be to stomach, is murder.

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