In the aftermath of the horrific shootings at Umpqua Community College in October, the country has witnessed more than a dozen mass shootings.a In their wake, the same oversimplified “causes” are trumpeted furiously until their tune fades away—only to return for an encore after the next shooting. We hear again the familiar lyrics that “nobody in their right mind” would commit such an atrocity—therefore, “mental illness” must be to blame. And, predictably, there is the cacophony of armchair psychoanalyzing and lurid publicizing of the perpetrator.
Thus, it bears repeating that the link between violence and mental illness is weak. Persons with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, account for only about 4% of violent crimes in the US.1 When gun violence alone is considered, this percentage drops even lower, and co-existing substance abuse and inadequate treatment are usually the major contributing factors.
While mass shootings (involving 4 or more victims) are often perpetrated by emotionally disturbed individuals, there are no reliable clinical data showing that most mass shooters have specific psychiatric disorders. A recent review concluded that:
Mass murderers who capture media attention often appear to be suffering from psychosis. However, no research has clearly established that most are psychotic or even suffering from a serious mental illness (SMI). In contrast, individual case studies examining the psychological makeup of mass murderers often reveal paranoid themes in their cognitions.
Even when a psychiatric disorder has been confirmed, there is no solid evidence that the shooter was motivated by the symptoms of that disorder, as opposed to long-standing resentment, rage, or narcissism. In most cases, we have neither a full psychiatric evaluation nor a complete “psychological autopsy” of the shooter, making formal diagnosis impossible.2
A tale of two cultures
We believe that a broader, socio- cultural perspective on gun violence is in order. Compared with most other high-income countries, firearm homicide rates in the US are nearly 20 times higher. For example, the rate of gun-related violence in Canada is about one-sixth that of the US. But the differences between the US and Canada go deeper. As policy analyst David B. Kopel observed nearly 25 years ago, “. . . the American national character has been shaped by the violent, armed assertion of national independence, whereas Canada has been shaped by a reaction against the American tradition of armed violence.”3 And, in a 1992 book, Kopel contrasted the figure of the “Mountie” (of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) with that of the archetypal American “Cowboy.”4 Kopel observed that the Mounted Police maintained tight control of Canada’s early western settlements and that the “six-shooter” never became the symbol of Canadian freedom.b
In contrast, law and order was maintained locally in the early American West—think Wyatt Earp, Marshall Dillon, and the Winchester rifle, “the gun that won the West.” Indeed, our cultural heritage is filled with stories linking guns with heroism, freedom, and taming the wild frontier. Ironically, the “Wild West” often had stricter gun laws than do some states today. Thus, history professor Katherine Benton-Cohen noted that in late 1880, Tombstone, Arizona, strengthened its ban on concealed weapons and outlawed carrying guns within the town limits.5
1. Friedman RA. In gun debate, a misguided focus on mental illness. New York Times. December 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/health/a-misguided-focus-on-mental-illness-in-gun-control-debate.html?_r=0. Accessed November 20, 2015.
2. Knoll JL, Meloy JR. Mass murder and the violent paranoid spectrum. Psychiatr Ann. 2014;44:236-243.
3. Kopel DB. Canadian gun control: should the United States look north for a solution to its firearms problem? Temple International and Comparative Law Journal. 1991;5:1-50.
4. Kopel DB. The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books; 1992.
5. Benton-Cohen K. Even Tombstone had gun laws. Politico. January 10, 2011. http://www.politico.com/story/2011/01/even-tombstone-had-gun-laws-047366. Accessed November 20, 2015.
6. Knoll J, Annas D. Mass murder and mental illness. In: Gold L, ed. Gun Violence and Mental Illness. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing. In press.
7. Gladwell M. Thresholds of violence: how school shootings catch on. The New Yorker. October 19, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence. Accessed November 20, 2015
8. Twenge J, Campbell W. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free Press; 2009.
9. Knoll JL. Mass murder: causes, classification, and prevention. Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2012;35:757-780.
10. Mullen P. The autogenic (self-generated) massacre. Behav Sci Law. 2004;22:311-323.
11. Pickhardt C. Teaching your adolescent about anger. Psychology Today. February 18, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201302/teaching-your-adolescent-about-anger. Accessed November 20, 2015.