Incidents like this—there are many other examples such as the recent shooting in the Florida State University library—reinforce the idea that people with mental health problems are violent and dangerous. Potential psychopaths, perhaps. People who should all be locked up in places like Broadmoor.
But while in hindsight it’s very easy to view the Lanza as portrayed in the report as a mass murderer waiting to happen, mental ill-health is in general a very poor predictor of violence. Jeffrey Swanson, professor of psychiatry at Duke University, has extensively researched the link between the two and generally found it wanting. Much better predictors of violence are being male, unemployed, poor, living in a disadvantaged community, using drugs or alcohol, having suffered from “violent victimization” in the past, and having previously shown violent behaviour.
“Most people with mental illness are not violent, and most acts of violence are not committed by people with mental illness,” Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told a workshop on mental health and violence in February in Washington, D.C. “People with untreated psychotic illness are at increased risk of irrational behavior, including violence, especially directed at family and friends. This usually happens at the onset of illness and before diagnosis or treatment. However, once treatment starts, these people have no higher risk of violence than the general population and are more often victims of crime.”
A rant about guns
But the prejudice persists. More people in America think mass shootings represent a failure of the mental health system rather than a failure of gun control. The Child Advocate report acknowledges “the significant role that assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips play in mass murder,” yet the focus is firmly on Lanza’s mental health. Concludes writer Maria Konnikova: “Mental illness is easy to blame, easy to pinpoint, and easy to legislate against in regards to gun ownership. But that doesn’t mean that it is the right place to start in an attempt to curtail violence.”
Guns are an integral part of America’s don’t-mess-with-me, “get off my lawn” identity, which takes in cowboys, John Wayne, Travis Bickle, and Grand Theft Auto. Guns are big business, and owning one is seen as an inalienable right, set in stone, enshrined in the Constitution. (In fact “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” comes from the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, which was referring not to individuals but “a well regulated militia.” The world was very different 223 years ago. Time, surely, to amend the amendment.)
Today, a third of Americans own a gun. There are about 300 million of them across the land. Lanza often went shooting recreationally with both of his parents, and had easy access at home to numerous firearms and high capacity ammunition. Individually and collectively, the presence of guns changes the psychology of Americans and America. There is something called the “weapons effect”—a much-repeated piece of research in 1967 showed that the presence or even suggestion of a gun can lead to an elevation of aggressive behaviour. No wonder gun owners and the gun lobby are so shrill in their defence of their pocket-size weapons of destruction: not only are they carrying guns—they are packing extra psychological heat as well.
One study shows you’re much more likely to kill or be killed if guns are in the house, which seems so obvious that it hardly need be researched. In 2011, just over half of the 39,518 suicides in the U.S. were carried out with a gun—19,990 self-inflicted fatal shootings. The number of gun suicides in the U.K.—admittedly with a population five times smaller—in the same year? A grand total of 93. Similarly, of the 16,238 homicides in the U.S. in 2011, 11,068 were done with a gun. The number of gun homicides in the U.K. was 38.
The National Rifle Association claims, with a straight face, that guns make America safer—their solution to the problem of so many people being killed by guns is more guns. Homicide and suicide are much more likely if the means to those ends are to hand. For example, half of the suicides in the U.K. used to be carried out by sticking your head in the oven and turning on the gas, the method chosen by poet Sylvia Plath while her children slept next door. When coal gas was phased out in the early 1970s and ovens no longer provided a quick exit, the suicide rate dropped by a third—and this reduction has endured over time. Putting obstacles in the way of killing reduces killing. The easier it is to buy guns, the more will be bought and the more people will be shot and killed.
Violence is impulsive, and we all have our moments of madness. A gun and a hair-trigger temper is a bad combination. Likewise an Uzi and a 9-year-old. Or a gun and a toddler (it’s amazing how many news stories there are about 4-year-olds shooting each other). Or a pistol and an angry, tired, stressed and possibly racist policeman—unarmed black kids like Michael Brown are gunned down and the killer walks free.
Or a gun and a moody, disaffected teenager. Sandy Hook was a terrible, sickening massacre. But since then, there have been another 92 shootings in American schools—almost one a week. Mental ill-health doesn’t shoot people—guns do.