PORTLAND – Linking mental illness with violent behavior has been a cultural tradition in the U.S., whether via literature, entertainment and/or the news media. Lately, this association has gained dramatically more traction.
The National Rifle Association declares that mental disorder is the most important cause of gun violence, while various states have begun tightening their scrutiny of those considered mentally ill.
Maine officials are reporting the names of citizens who may pose a risk to themselves and society to the state’s Department of Public Safety and the FBI’s national database and clearinghouse for background checks.
New York has gone further, mandating the confiscation of guns from not only those who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities but also those who have willingly entered treatment. In addition, some states are proposing to lower the criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment.
Claiming that persons with mental illness are major contributors to a multi-dimensional national problem may be politically expedient, but is ultimately self-defeating both for improving and accessing mental health services for those in need and for reducing gun violence.
Proposals to identify and restrict people who previously have been admitted to mental health facilities, but have no violent history, will only discourage individuals from seeking and fully participating in rehabilitative services.
As for the actual threat posed by people with a psychiatric condition, in a word: miniscule. Less than 1 percent of persons with identified mental illness commit violent crimes.
Although individuals with some type of psychiatric diagnosis comprise 26.2 percent of the U.S. population over age 18, they account for only 4 percent of all reported violent crime. This figure is even lower when gun use is involved, decreasing to 2 percent.
In real numbers, this means that of the 11,000 Americans killed by guns every year (more than twice that of the next industrialized country), only about 220 murders are attributable to people with an identified psychiatric condition.
It should also be pointed out that persons with mental illnesses often reside in the poorest neighborhoods with the highest crime rates, and are 11 times more likely than the general public to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. It is often argued that the risk of violent crime increases among persons with mental illness when drugs and alcohol are involved, but this is also the case whether or not a person has a psychiatric condition.
If we really want to identify the “riskiest” group for gun violence, we might target young men ages 18 to 29, with a history of violent behavior, who use drugs/alcohol, belong to gangs and lack family support. In fact, using age and gender alone yield far more accurate predictions of violence than mental illness — by 290 percent and 115 percent, respectively.
Of course, combining the best predictors with the most recent assessment tools is only 41 percent accurate, meaning that about 2 people would have to be screened and restricted for every one who would commit a violent act. Obviously, there are better alternatives.
Nearly all agree that people with histories of violent behavior should not have access to firearms whether or not they have a psychiatric disability. We should more stringently identify and screen people based on their history of violence, not mental illness, and plug the loopholes in buying and registering firearms wherever such transactions occur, just as we do with vehicles.
Another important step is to reduce the stockpile of weapons in American households that are not used or needed for hunting and can inflict enormous casualties with minimal effort.
National surveys taken over the last 40 years indicate that gun ownership has steadily decreased from 50 percent in the 1970s to 34 percent today. The NRA disputes these figures, pointing to recently reported surges in gun purchases and comparable surveys conducted lately that cite a figure of 52 percent.
Whether household gun ownership is trending up or down, clearly Americans own a lot of firearms — 310 million, according to a 2009 estimate.
It is said that guns are needed for safety. In fact, the opposite seems true. The correlation between firearm availability and rates of homicide is consistent across wealthy, industrialized countries: Where there are more firearms, there are higher homicide rates. Conversely, when rates of household gun ownership decline, so also does gun-related violence.
America is apparently as awash in fear as we are in guns and violence. The NRA claims we need more firearms to protect ourselves from criminals, government and persons with mental illness. Some small towns, including one in western Maine, have voted on whether to make gun ownership mandatory. Really.
Perhaps we need to pause and again be reminded that what we have to truly fear is fear itself — and its destructive effects.
Stephen T. Murphy, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the College of Management and Human Services at the University of Southern Maine.