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Duke researchers on why mental illness is not to blame for recent mass shootings

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, the president and other Republican lawmakers responded to the increasing demands of gun control activists by pointing to mental illness. But experts from Duke say that’s wrong.

In early August, President Donald Trump called for the return of mental health institutions to tackle gun violence, while claiming that his administration will focus on the impact of mental illness at an unprecedented level, according to an article by Politico.

“We have to start building institutions again because, you know, if you look at the ’60s and ’70s, so many of these institutions were closed, and the people were just allowed to go onto the streets,” Trump told a group of reporters. “That was a terrible thing for our country.”

In North Carolina, Democrats in both legislative chambers filed extreme risk protection order bills, which allow family members and law enforcement officials to ask a judge to temporarily remove guns from an individual who poses a risk to themselves or others. However, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who presides over the Senate, insisted that the focus should instead be on mental health and personal responsibility, according to WRAL.

Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Duke School of Medicine, has authored and co-authored over 200 publications on violence and serious mental illnesses and will serve as a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research this fall. He called the president’s mental illness talk “fake news.”

“Most of the people who are perpetrators of gun crimes don't have mental illness,” Swanson said. “[Mass shooters] are isolated, alienated, aggrieved young men following this deviant cultural script and have access to very lethal technology. But few of them actually have one of the recognizable psychiatric illnesses that tens of millions of Americans deal with and who would never do something like this.”

Based on Swanson’s 2015 study, even if society were rid of mental illness, violence would only be reduced by 4%. Few perpetrators of gun violence have legitimate mental illnesses, but they all have guns.

In a speech at the School Safety Summit earlier this month, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Swanson said that the rhetoric of mental illness allows Republican lawmakers to “obscure the real problem and prevents us from focusing on real solutions,” such as improving background checks, increasing law enforcement against illegal gun trafficking and enacting extreme risk protection order laws, known as red flag laws.  

Falsely blaming mental health increases the stigma that people struggling with mental illness face regularly, perpetuating the notion that these individuals are somehow dangerous or should be feared, Swanson commented.

Kristin Goss, Kevin D. Gorter professor of public policy and political science, said that while the federal government has not been able to move beyond the rhetoric, considerable action has been made on the state level in both red and blue states.

“Nothing meaningful has happened in Congress to advance gun regulations arguably since the mid-nineties,” Goss said. “But most criminal justice policies happen at the state level. States have way more authority over criminal justice than the federal government.”

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed extreme risk protection order laws. Even though ERPO bills struggle to gain bipartisan support in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper recently signed an executive directive to strengthen background checks and increase gun violence prevention education among law enforcement and the local community.

Swanson said for action to occur on the federal level, the focus needs to return to guns. He found that compared to 14 other industrialized countries, the United States has a standard crime rate, but an exceptionally high homicide rate. Furthermore, an assault in the United States is three times more likely to involve a gun.

“If you have a couple of young, intoxicated, impulsive young men in the middle of the night in the UK and they get into an argument, somebody gets a bloody nose or a black eye,” Swanson said. “In our country, it's statistically more likely in that scenario that one of those young men in one of our big cities would have a concealed handgun and things would get out of hand.”

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