Mental illness rarely leads to gun violence, researchers conclude

New policies and laws are in place in many states, including California, to restrict gun access for people with mental illness, but research suggests there’s largely no connection between mental illness and gun violence.

According to several major polls over the last few years, more than half of Americans believe the mental health system is to blame for mass shootings. However, statistically mentally ill are far more of a danger to themselves than others.

A study released this year and led by researchers at the University of Texas, shows news media coverage and political rhetoric has shaped the flawed narrative and public perception, and ultimately, influenced policymaking. 

“We really need to stop blaming gun violence on mental illness,” Jeff Temple, director of behavioral health and research at University of Texas said. “That’s only going to continue to stigmatize this already vulnerable population and we really need to focus on access to guns or limiting access to guns.”

Temple and his team surveyed more than 600 young adults and teens with an average age of 22, asking them about gun access, gun ownership, gun carrying and gun threats. The findings, published in a preventive medicine journal, concluded access to firearms is the primary culprit.

He explained to KTVU that mental conditions like depression, anxiety and ADHD have no connections to violence and in his studies, found only about 4 % of violent crime in the United States stems from those with a mental illness.

“If we look at mental health in other peer countries, it’s the same rates, the same care,” Temple said. “But they don’t have any gun violence because they don’t have guns. In reality, it’s access to guns.”

Statistics show that gun-related deaths are not mass shootings. Instead, two-thirds of all the deaths caused by guns are suicide. And researchers at University of California Davis back-up that statistic, finding mass shootings only make up 1 % of overall gun violence.

“It does not do us a service – if our interest is preventing firearm violence – to focus on just the one percent of the problem,” director of the Violence Prevention Research Program Garen Wintemute said. “We need to focus on the 100 % of the problem.”

Wintemute has nearly four decades of experience studying gun violence and is focused on prevention. He’s a large supporter of Gun Violence Restraining Orders where a family member or member of law enforcement can ask a judge to prevent someone from having or buying a gun. They’re largely known as ‘red flag’ laws aimed at preventing the person from harming themselves or others.

As with other research, Wintemute agrees that mental health is not linked to mass shooters and instead points to his research that shows being male, facing rejection or suffering recent trauma can be risk factors. He also explained the risk increases if there’s also alcohol abuse, drug abuse or a prior history of violence. Specifically, domestic violence can be a major factor in predicting future violent behavior.

“More than 80 % of the time, the shooters declare their intention in advance,” Wintemute said. “There’s actually an opportunity to intervene and prevent the event from happening in the first place.”

That could have been the case in Santa Barbara in 2014 when a college student went on a shooting rampage and stabbing spree. Family members saw the warning signs but couldn’t legally do anything, which prompted California’s red flag law, passed in 2016. 

The most recent data shows that over three years since the law was implemented, more than 400 gun violence restraining orders were issued when warning signs were seen.

Unlike the results surrounding mental health, several peer-reviewed, scholarly studies show interpersonal relationships can be directly linked to gun violence. That could be an employee who’s angry at their boss, a man who’s mad at his cheating wife, or a male teen who is rejected by a female.

Researchers explained it is important people see the difference between violent behavior and those diagnosed with clinical mental conditions. Linking acts of violence to mental illness has been found to increase the stigma of mental illness. The University of Texas study said it can actually increase negative feelings, which makes it more difficult for people with mental disorders to ask for help.

Right now, there is more progress being made in California. Anyone convicted of domestic violence in 2019 onward is banned from owning a gun. Still, researchers hope more can be done to stop gun violence.

“For the first time, everybody in the country is starting to see this as a problem that affects them personally,” Wintemute said. “I think in the coming years we’re going to see some real change – the kind we’ve been hoping for, for decades.”