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The New Scapegoat for Gun Violence: Mental Illness

2018 Photo by Lorie ShaullOur President and others have latched onto the idea that mental illness — not guns — is to blame for the gun violence plaguing our country. Labeling mental illness as the cause of gun violence grossly oversimplifies a grossly complex problem. But we like tying things up neatly. We want to quickly and easily understand who’s to blame, so pointing a finger at the mentally ill makes that easy for us. 

This toxic, misplaced blame perpetuates the chronic discrimination we as a society still possess for the mentally ill, who represent a large population of Americans and who, with the same rare exception found in virtually every demographic category, occasionally behave in a violent manner. 

It’s ironic that we, as a nation that largely ignores, delegitimizes and under-funds mental illness, suddenly draw it into the spotlight when it’s time to blame someone other than ourselves and our outdated laws. We claim to be compassionate, yet our laws, and potential attempts to require a mental illness registry of some kind, reflect underlying contempt and distrust of the mentally ill, who suffer acutely every day of their lives, and who are deserving far more of help, and far less disdain and blame.

President Trump’s response to the recent horrific mass shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, was to point a finger at mental health: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior.” Later in his televised address at the White House, he pledged to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health” and to improve safety in schools, but failed to mention the guns that killed the seventeen victims.

Putting the onus on the mental health system and implementing laws that would red flag “potential threats” is arguably a step forward to prevent violence against our children and our schools. But it’s a drop in the bucket, and it turns our attention away from the real problem, which is gun accessibility.

In the United States, whenever a plane goes down or a train derails and crashes and American lives are lost, the transportation and safety authorities act very quickly. They launch full investigations and do everything in their power to prevent the accident from happening again. They leave no stone unturned, and the search for answers often goes on for months, or even years. Yet when a mass shooting occurs at a school, a theater, a place of worship or anywhere else, nobody does anything about it. Instead we send thoughts and prayers to the grieving families. But now that we are scapegoating people with mental illness and throwing them under the bus, we can pretend that we are doing something about it.

Many people still ask why we have so many mass shootings. Are we a violent nation? Should we heighten security in our schools? Should we arm teachers? So far, every answer seems to be on the table, except for fewer guns.

A 2015 study by The National Institute of Health showed that less than 5% of gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with mental illness. Another NIH study from 2016, estimated that only 4% of violence is committed by someone with a serious mental illness.

A recent article in The New York Times by Amy Barnhorst, “The Mental Health System Can’t Stop Mass Shootings,” Barnhorst reminds us that “Even if all potential mass shooters did get psychiatric care, there is no reliable cure for angry young men who harbor violent fantasies.” Or people with substance abuse issues and many other factors. In short, the mental health system has no safeguards to speak of. It is not an exact science. The proposed change in law would only weed out those who seek treatment for mental illness.

Barnhorst adds, “The reason the mental health system fails to prevent mass shootings is that mental illness is rarely the cause of such violence.” Saying that is a sweeping generalization that is both reckless and unproductive. The bottom line is, whether someone has a mental illness diagnosis or if they are angry, vengeful, or have a history of emotional instability, why not make it difficult for that person to purchase a deadly weapon? As we have seen, anyone can “snap” and take their frustrations out on others. And, if the AR-15 and other assault rifles were not available to purchase, lives would naturally be saved.

According to US News and World Report, “U.S. states that have significantly higher rates of gun ownership also have higher rates of homicides, suicides and ‘accidental’ gun deaths. Countries’ rates of gun ownership almost exactly correlate with their rates of gun deaths, with the U.S. as a complete outlier in both.” The evidence is irrefutable that we simply have too many guns available to purchase and that our laws have to change.

Here’s another point to think about. In the past few decades we have come far in destigmatizing mental illness. Tagging it as the cause for our gun violence would proliferate the remaining stigma and stereotyping. The result would be that many sufferers would stop seeking help for fear of exposure and persecution. They may return to the shadows and retreat in shame to a life of isolation again. We as a country cannot afford this type of regression. We should continue to move forward in our treatment of, and compassionate regard for, those who suffer.  

The truth is that the mentally ill are not violent, and they are already the target of scorn and fear in our society. While it is true that many shootings are carried out by individuals with some form of mental illness, most mentally ill, like most people in general, never commit a violent crime. Enacting laws that go after people with a diagnosed mental illness would result in sufferers not seeking treatment for fear of being stigmatized.

Photo attribution: Lorie Shaull

The New Scapegoat for Gun Violence: Mental Illness

John Tsilimparis, MFT

JOHN TSILIMPARIS, MFT is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles that has become a go-to expert for the media on many areas of psychological issues. He has appeared on KCBS-TV, KABC-TV, KCAL-TV, KTLA-TV and other news programs to comment on subjects such as, marriage and divorce, holiday stress, empty nest syndrome, seasonal affective disorder, celebrity addictions, lottery fever, etc. John's radio appearances include Air-Talk with Larry Mantle on KPCC-FM and recently on KPFK-AM radio.

John has also been featured as a regular on the TV documentary series, Obsessed, on the A&E Television Network. He also appeared on the reality show Collection Intervention and The View.

John teaches classes for students as well as lay people about anxiety disorders, depression, and addiction. He has presented workshops at UCLA Extension. John teaches at Pepperdine University and Antioch University.

He is also a regular blogger on the Huffington Post and has published articles on many of the subjects mentioned above. Please visit his Huffington Post page.

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APA Reference
Tsilimparis, J. (2018). The New Scapegoat for Gun Violence: Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Feb 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.