Gun ownership is under fire these days in the US. We all know the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected in the United States, but we also know that gun violence is a really big issue. So how do we control gun violence, without disrupting our constitutional right to bear arms? A great place to start would be to control gun access to those who are mentally ill. Making sure someone with an unstable personality doesn’t have access to weapons seems like it would be basic common sense.
But is it?
Is mental illness actually correlated with gun ownership or gun violence? That depends upon what your idea of mental illness is. When someone says “mental illness”, one tends to think of schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. When you take this point of view, a review of the scientific literature surprisingly reveals that “…the vast majority of people with diagnosable serious psychiatric disorders, unless they also had a substance use disorder, …[do] not engage in violent behavior.”
However, mental illness is so much more than just hallucinations, delusions, and erratic mood swings. Mental illness also includes everything else, from depression and eating disorders to ADHD to gambling addictions. In a recent study out of Harvard University, researchers used nationally representative surveys to look at violent tendencies and gun access, in relation to such common mental illnesses. What they found was quite alarming:
- An estimated 8.8% of the population have guns at home and show signs of impulsive angry behavior, while ~1.5% of the population actually carries a gun in conjunction with impulsive angry behavior
- People who own 6 or more guns were four times as likely to be in the high-risk anger/carry group compared to people who only owned one firearm
- Once again, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders were not significantly associated with gun carry/anger issues (most likely due to the rarity of occurrence); however
- The association between common mental illnesses and behaviors that heighten the risk for impulsive gun-related violence was very non-specific. In other words, disorders not related to violence (such as eating disorders) and violence-associated disorders were all correlated with increased impulsive angry behavior.
So the reality of the situation is, people with serious mental illnesses aren’t the ones we should be worried about. The truth is, we should be worried about anyone afflicted with a common mental disorder. However, these people tend to fly under the radar, as they often don’t seek treatment and are almost never hospitalized for mental illness. As a result, they usually don’t get put on the “maybe we shouldn’t give this person a gun” list.
So what can we do?
Unfortunately, the proportion of people with mental disorders is quite large, so gun rights activists won’t be keen on preventing anyone with a mental illness from obtaining a firearm. As an alternative, the Harvard researchers believe that gun restrictions based on criminal records, substance abuse, and issuance of restraining orders might yield better results in terms of lowering gun violence in the US. Which is a great idea, if we can ever get Congress to pass anything…