Gun violence in the U.S. is on the rise. Experts weigh in on its prevalence, how it could be prevented, and any links to mental health.

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The United States has seen a wave of mass shootings in recent years. This year alone, we’ve seen more shootings — at workplaces, schools, and grocery stores — than previous years.

No place seems safe from gun violence anymore.

While many policymakers are torn about how to handle this epidemic, somehow the blame keeps falling on mental health.

But mental health experts believe that using mental health as a scapegoat does not get us closer to solving the problem — instead, it creates one for people who live with mental health conditions.

There’s been an increase in gun violence in the United States over the last few years.

In 2017, there were nearly 40,000 deaths due to gun violence, reaching a 40-year high, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In previous years, the leading cause of death by guns was suicide.

Mass shootings — defined by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive as a shooting in which four or more people were injured or killed at one location or event — were not as common, only accounting for 1% of gun-related deaths.

This year we’ve seen a rise in mass shootings. So far in 2021, there have been more than 160 mass shootings, double the numbers seen in 2020.

Experts believe this increase may be due to the rise in gun sales that soared to all-time highs in 2020 during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued nationwide.

According to the FBI, nearly 3 million background checks for firearms were done each month from March to December 2020. This year, March saw the highest number at nearly 4.7 million firearm background checks.

Gun violence affects everyone at some level, but rates can vary by state, demographics, race, ethnicity, and age.

There are different forms of gun violence. Some common ones include:

  • Homicide. This type of violence applies to shootings with the intent to harm someone.
  • Suicide. This is when a firearm is meant to harm or injure oneself. More than 50% of suicides are carried out with a firearm.
  • Accidental shooting. Firearm accidents happen quite often. In 2019 they accounted for more than 1,800 shootings. As of April 2021, children caused at least 71 accidental shootings.
  • Legal intervention. The CDC uses this description to include injuries inflicted by the police or other law enforcement persons during legal courses of actions, such as an arrest.

No matter the manner in which it occurs, gun violence is a national public health epidemic that continues to take its toll on the families and communities it touches.

There’s been a common misconception that people with a mental health condition carry out mass shootings.

Past president administrations even suggested that monitoring people living with mental health conditions could prevent future gun violence.

Experts believe that every time someone draws the conclusion that a person with a mental health condition is to blame for a tragic event, it only adds to the stigma and deflects attention from the real issue.

Ashley McGirt, MSW, a racial trauma specialist, international speaker, and author in Seattle, Washington, explains, “Portraying those with mental illness as violent further stigmatizes mental illness. The reality is 1 in 4 of us has a mental illness. We are likely to encounter someone everyday living with a mental condition, and we are not in danger because of it.”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, less than 1% of gun-related deaths each year could be contributed to a person with a mental health condition. In addition, only 3% of violent crimes involved people with mental health conditions.

Putting the blame on people with mental health conditions only makes them less likely to seek and follow treatment.

A lot of things have been linked to gun violence: video games, cartoons, and violent music are just a few. Some people have even tried to link race, income, and education level.

McGirt says, “Oftentimes the media portrays the Black community as being disproportionately violent. However, research shows that African Americans are no more violent than any other group.”

So, who or what is actually the reason? Research suggests there are some factors that may increase the likelihood of gun violence:

  • history of violence, including domestic violence
  • alcohol or substance use
  • increased availability of weapons
  • family problems
  • media influence
  • being young and male
  • personal history of physical or sexual abuse or trauma

Gun violence affects vulnerable populations more than others, too. These include:

  • women
  • children
  • LGBTQIA+ people
  • people living in poverty

Andrew Mangrum, MDiv, LMFT, a clinical consultant in Memphis, Tennessee, says, “Whenever we experience a tragedy, it is natural to want to identify ways to prevent reoccurrence. As with many societal problems, the cause and blame in the rise of gun violence is not simple, and there are many factors that are potentially at play.”

Many times, people who want to hurt themselves or others show some warning signs before they carry out the act.

According to McGirt, one of the most common signs that’s often overlooked is a history of gun violence. She explains, “Having a past history of gun violence can be a tell-tale sign that an individual will reengage with gun violence.”

McGirt also says that past issues with anger as well as having easy access to firearms can be an early warning sign.

Other potential warning signs include:

  • making direct threats to a place, person, or themselves
  • suddenly withdrawing from friends, family, and activities (such as social media)
  • becoming more isolated
  • expressing feelings of chronic loneliness
  • increased irritability, lack of patience, or becoming angry quickly
  • bragging about access to guns or other types of weapons
  • bragging about or acquiring a large number of guns, ammunition, or other types of tactical gear (such as bulletproof vests)
  • talking about direct plans to harm a place, person, or themselves
  • bullying, especially toward people of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion
  • recruiting others to their plans of threat or attack
  • highly focused on prior shootings and incidents of gun violence
  • suddenly and quickly giving away personal belongings

Of course, this isn’t a complete list of warning signs, and showing one or more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a violent attack.

The scenarios for gun violence can vary. Every incident of gun violence is not the same.

Not everyone involved in gun violence dies.

An ever-present fear and anxiety may follow survivors and their loved ones, long after the incident occurred. This could look like being afraid to visit places where the shooting took place, like a mall or a supermarket.

Older research has also shown that up to two-thirds of people exposed to violence — including gun violence — may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The first responders who care for the people involved in a gun incident are also at risk of developing PTSD.

Gun violence is a serious public health issue. No matter the type of gun violence — homicide, suicide, or mass shooting — or the cause, there are ways to help prevent it.

Policy and law initiatives

  • Expand background checks for gun sales. Requiring a more thorough background check on every gun sale and transfer, including private and online, will help lower the number of guns available for violent acts.
  • Ban sale of assault weapons and their accessories. Preventing the sale of large capacity weapons, such as assault rifles and large ammunition, that are often used in mass shootings can help prevent them.
  • Focus gun violence policies and prevention measures appropriately. Instead of focusing on mental health as the cause, it’s important to avoid harmful stereotypes and use appropriate language when discussing gun violence.

Funding, research, and training

  • Increase funding for gun violence prevention and research. This can help further understand the causes of gun violence, thereby learning more about how to prevent it.
  • Fund safe storage opportunities. This can help promote safe storage and handling of firearms.
  • Federally fund extreme risk protection order laws. These laws would help assess whether someone is at risk of suicide, and instead of focusing on mental diagnoses, they would focus on risk behaviors.
  • Provide funding and training for behavioral threat assessment programs. These programs can help identify people who show risk factors for violence.
  • Train healthcare professionals on lethal means counseling. This will help healthcare professionals be more prepared to ask about access to firearms and provide counseling when necessary.

Community

  • Increase collaboration between law enforcement, schools, communities, and mental health professionals. This allows for intervention and immediate resolution during crises, as well as help with preventive measures.
  • Develop community building programs. A 2017 scientific review found that community-led initiatives, such as a youth development or a career services program, reduced homicides by 9% and violence by 6%.
  • Improve housing conditions. Research shows that improving vacant land and housing conditions can lower gun violence and other types of violence. Adding green spaces, reducing availability of alcohol, and improving street connectivity may help reduce violent crimes too.

The bottom line: Mental health conditions do not cause gun violence.

Gun violence is complicated, and there are many approaches to prevention. But one of the most important things we can do as a community is to start the conversation, framed in a way that eliminates mental health as the culprit.

No two tragedies are the same, and no one demographic can take the blame for a continuous problem.

There can only be a change when we acknowledge that the issue is bigger than one cause and one solution. Identifying and implementing changes in policies and procedures on a federal, state, and community level are the only way we’ll see significant change in gun violence.