President Donald Trump cast the blame for the horrific Texas shooting massacre that took the lives of at least 26 people on Sunday—including children—and injured dozens more as a “mental health problem” (rather than a “guns situation”). That’s become a common refrain from politicians and advocacy groups who oppose gun control policies and insist that people with mental illnesses are largely to blame for mass shootings; but is that argument supported by the facts?
In the case of the Texas church shooting, there have been multiple reports that alleged gunman Devin P. Kelley had mental health problems and even once escaped from a mental health facility in New Mexico the same year he faced an Air Force court-martial and other charges. Kelley reportedly tried to then sneak guns onto an Air Force base to carry through on death threats against officers.
He isn’t the first gunman to carry out a mass shooting who has an alleged history of mental illness or mental health concerns. But historical evidence suggests that the intersection of gun violence and mental illness isn’t nearly that simple; in fact, people with mental illnesses overwhelmingly are not violent and, if they are, pose a far greater threat to themselves than to others, according to medical experts.
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When it comes to mass shootings in America, those done by “people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths,” write Drs. James Knoll IV and George D. Annas in the 2015 research collection Gun Violence and Mental Illness.
Those figures mesh with numbers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The agency has said in recent reports that two-thirds of the more than 65,000 U.S. gun deaths in any given year are suicides; nearly 1,300 American children are killed by guns annually, and almost 40% of those fatalities are suicides rather than homicides or accidents.
Trump’s point has more to do with mass shootings, like the Texas shooting and the horrific incident in Las Vegas last month when a shooter on the 32nd floor of a hotel killed at least 59 people. But the mental health point doesn’t pan out in the numbers with mass shootings, either. “Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Thus, databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by gun laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals,” write Knoll and Annas. In fact, people with serious mental illnesses contribute to only about 3% of all violent crimes, and those don’t even all involve guns. And a short-term mental stressor that drives someone over the edge, such as losing a job or a significant other, isn’t the same thing as having a long-term, diagnosed mental health issue.
While public health experts agree that people at risk for hurting themselves or others shouldn’t have access to firearms, they’ve also expressed concern at the stigma of associating high-profile incidents like the Las Vegas and Texas shootings with mental illness. This sort of rhetoric, they argue, could make people who need help less likely to seek it—while ignoring the reality that they aren’t really to blame for America’s gun violence epidemic in the first place.
There have been 307 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2017 alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive.