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Keeping Guns Out of the Hands of the Mentally Ill

Keeping Guns Out of the Hands of the Mentally IllAs I was finishing up watching last night’s presidential debate, I was about to turn off the TV when the gun control question came up. An audience member asked what each candidate would do to stem the constant gun violence our country experiences.

America has a strange but rich history with guns, since our very country was founded on every citizen being well-armed (since there was nothing close to a national army at the time). I support the 2nd Amendment and any American’s right to “bear arms.”

So I was a little taken aback when Obama said last night, in answer to the question about gun control: “Enforce the laws we’ve already got. Make sure we are keeping the guns out of the hands of criminals… Those who are mentally ill.” Wha… what?!

I agree with the first part — keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is an important (but ultimately an impossible & fruitless) goal. But why were people with a mental illness singled out for greater gun control?

As Gostin & Record (2011) note:

The Gun Control Act of 1968 restricts “prohibited persons” from purchasing firearms, including individuals addicted to controlled substances, those involuntarily committed to a mental institution or adjudicated as incompetent or dangerous, or those who receive a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Gun Control Act incentivizes states to further regulate by making it a federal offense to sell firearms to individuals whose possession would violate state law. Given the ineffectiveness of current restrictions on access to firearms for “dangerous” individuals with mental illness, the government must improve safeguards against firearms-related violence.

So, I don’t believe Obama was talking about anyone who’s ever had a mental disorder diagnosis — that would include over 25 percent of the population.

I think he meant to say those who fall under the Gun Control Act of 1968 — specifically people who have been involuntarily committed, found by a court to be incompetent or dangerous, or those who’ve already committed a crime but were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

According to Gostin & Record (2011), recent Supreme Court rulings generally push states to “regulate dangerous persons rather than dangerous firearms” but that existing gun restrictions pertaining to individuals with mental illnesses are ineffective.

People with mental illness look very similar to people without a mental illness, especially in their relationship to guns. In a survey of 5,692 individuals in 2008, Ilgen et al. found that:

Individuals with lifetime mental disorders were as likely as those without to have access to a gun (34.1% versus 36.3%; ), carry a gun (4.8% versus 5.0%), or store a gun in an unsafe manner (6.2% versus 7.3%).

An article by Appelbaum & Swanson (2010) looked at the federal and state laws to restrict access to firearms among people with mental illness and found our laws and restrictions have little measurable impact:

The contribution to public safety of these laws is likely to be small because only 3% – 5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most do not involve guns. (Emphasis added.)

The categories of persons with mental illnesses targeted by the laws may not be at higher risk of violence than other subgroups in this population.

In fact, such laws may have a serious unintended, negative consequence, as Applebaum & Swanson note: “The laws may deter people from seeking treatment for fear of losing the right to possess firearms and may reinforce stereotypes of persons with mental illnesses as dangerous.”

There is little point focusing on a problem that doesn’t exist — unless it’s politically popular to suggest you’re going to do something. And that by doing this particular thing — even though it will make little difference — people will think, “Wow, he’s trying to keep those crazies with guns off the street.” The fact is, the vast majority of people on the street with guns are not people with mental illness, therefore focusing on them does little in the way of actually combating the problem of violent crime with guns.

I’m all for keeping guns out of criminals’ hands. But let’s not go over the top and suggest that anyone who’s ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder (and therefore falls into the class of the “mentally ill”) is also unfit to own a gun.

Because that’s a broad generalization that has very little support in the research data.



Appelbaum, P.S. & Swanson, J.W. (2010). Gun laws and mental illness: How sensible are the current restrictions? Psychiatric Services, 61, 652-654.

Gostin, L.O. & Record, K.L. (2011). Dangerous people or dangerous weapons access to firearms for persons with mental illness. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 305, 2108-2109.

Ilgen, M.A., Zivin, K., McCammon, R.J. & Valenstein, M. (2008). Mental illness, previous suicidality, and access to guns in the United States. Psychiatric Services, 59, 198-200.

Keeping Guns Out of the Hands of the Mentally Ill

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Keeping Guns Out of the Hands of the Mentally Ill. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Oct 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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