Mental Health and Gun Violence

Mental Health and Gun Violence


From 2000 to 2006, there were an average of 6.4 mass shootings a year in the United States. From 2007 to 2013, there were 16.4 a year, on average. These numbers come from an FBI report on mass shootings, and they confirm that horrific shootings like those in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston, and Roseburg are becoming more common. A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health says that mass shootings tripled between 2011 and 2014.

The United States leads the world in mass shootings. The phenomenon of troubled individuals who murder four or more people, usually strangers, in public places is, according to The Economist, a public health problem characteristic of the United States.

These headline-grabbing shootings often bring up conversations about mental health.They stand out from the texture of our everyday lives, they confuse us, they shake our understanding of the world. They drive us to look for reasons, and they have fueled discussions about mental health and mental health treatment in some positive ways.

The mental health issues being discussed are largely issues affecting the middle class. These are privileged people who go on rampages in places we usually think are safe: schools, theaters, affluent neighborhoods. That’s where the drama is, and that’s what gets attention.

But high profile public killings are not the real problem when it comes to gun violence in America. They account for less than 1% of all murders, according to the┬áBureau of Justice Statistics. The real problem doesn’t get much press. More than 10,000 people are murdered with guns each year in the United States. Their stories are not as dramatic, so they fade into the background of violence that we know about, but perhaps don’t care to think about.

Roughly 33 people a day are killed with firearms. These homicides are associated with urban crime, gang violence, and poverty. Nearly half of all murders committed with guns are gang-related shootings. Many more are killings of friends and family members in neighborhoods where gun violence is common. The causes of these deaths are not individual mental health issues, but systemic problems.

Who is suffering most from gun violence?

Homicide is the #1 cause of death for young African-American men in America. The Center for Disease Control tells us that for black men from ages 15 to 34, the most common cause of death is homicide. 83% of those murders are committed with guns.

How does this compare with other ethnic groups? Here are the figures from 2013:

  • For Hispanic American males in the same age group, homicide is the #2 cause of death.
  • For white, non-Hispanic men and Asian-American men in the same age group, the number drops to 3.
  • For Native American men, homicide is #7.

So we have to acknowledge that different groups of Americans are affected by gun violence differently. African-American men are six times more likely than white men to be shot and killed.

We are looking at the ethnicity of the victims here, not of the murderers. But the United States is not yet thoroughly integrated when it comes to social groups, neighborhoods, and communities. Most murder victims are killed by someone of their own ethnicity.

So should we expect to see higher rates of mental illness among African-Americans, along with higher rates of death by shooting?

The National Institute of Mental Health says otherwise. African-Americans and Asian Americans both show 2.9% mental illness, far lower than the national average of 4.2%. The only ethnic group with a lower percentage is Pacific Islanders.

Let’s put it into clear perspective. In 2013, looking only at homicides with one killer and one victim, 7 African American men were shot every single day. Of all the mass shootings this year — 297 as of this writing — only five had a higher victim count.

Mass shootings of course are horrific. But is it less horrific to think that one group of Americans, in the 21st century, with gun violence falling overall, lives every day at great risk of being murdered?

Are the killers in these cases mentally ill? Are they even criminals, before they commit the terrible crime of murder? Global generalizations are problematic, but we know that living in poverty and in dangerous, crowded places is stressful. We know that continued, intense stress causes behaviors that we don’t see in more wholesome environments. In some places and at some times, violent behavior becomes normal. It doesn’t get headlines, because it’s not shocking. It’s expected.

We should be shocked at the idea that we expect that violence.

Until we deal with the systemic problems of poverty and racial inequality, we won’t be able to deal with gun violence. Focusing on the mass murders (less than 1% of shootings) and ignoring the thousands of murders of young African American men (half of shootings) gives a picture of gun violence that looks like something about mental illness. It looks like individual tragedy.

Looking at all gun violence gives a different picture: a view that looks more like a violent culture in which we tolerate and ignore violence in some parts of our nation, rather than committing to changes that would reduce the systemic problems that lead to violence.

Yes, there is a mental health problem in our nation’s gun violence problem. But it isn’t primarily a matter of individual mental health issues in quiet suburbs.