Mental illness is not the cause of gun violence

The last thing I remember reading about before I went to sleep Sunday night (early Monday, technically) was the headline of a USA Today article about police officers responding to reports of an active shooter in Las Vegas.  I hoped then that the shooter would either kill himself (in the United States, mass shooters are invariably men) or be killed before wounding anyone.  I awoke Monday morning to find that the shooter–Stephen Paddock–had killed over 50 people and injured more than 400 (before killing himself) in the greatest mass shooting in modern United States history.  Throughout the course of my workday, I was able to keep an eye on the news (we had it on one tv and it was slow for a while) and saw the number of casualties rise to 59 dead and 527 injured. Country music artist Jason Aldean had just taken the stage for day 3 of the Route 91 music festival when the shooting began.  An estimated 22,000 concertgoers were in the crowd when the shooting began, which maximized the number of people Paddock could kill.

As with the 272 previous mass shootings this year, there are many questions about the killer and his motives. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, authorities will likely uncover some answers (though not all, since Paddock killed himself). For many people, one of the most important questions–“Why did this happen?”–has an easy answer. One that is apparent even before the dust has settled.   It will surprise few people to learn that once again, mental illness is blamed for gun violence.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo describes the shooter as:

 “a distraught person intent on causing mass casualties.”

Lombardo, describing him again:

I can’t get into the mind of a psychopath at this point.”

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman:

“This is a crazed lunatic full of hate”

The UK online publication The Mirror, in listing 5 possible motives mentions:

4. Mental illness inherited from father

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel:

A very sick person smuggled 17 guns into his hotel room and smashed out the windows, started firing indiscriminately from the 32nd floor into a crowd of 22,000 people across the street.”

All these devastated families who now have to live with this pain forever because one person with a violent and insane voice in his head managed to stockpile a collection of high-powered rifles and use them to shoot people.”

This is just a small sample of the more prominent reactions in the wake of this tragedy. Similar reactions can be found in articles on the Sandy Hook Massacre, the Aurora theater shooting, the Columbine Massacre, the Pulse Nightclub shooting, and a host of others. Simply put, in the aftermath of gun violence it is extremely common for politicians, pundits, celebrities, and civilians (of all political stripes) to assert that mental illness is to blame. If the truth of that assertion were determined by the number of people who believe it,  “gun violence is caused by mental illness” would be true as fuck (thankfully the truth of a claim is determined not by the argumentum ad populum, but rather, on evidence). That assumption (along with several others frequently made in the wake of mass shootings) was examined in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study’s authors found that:

Yet surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes. According to Appelbaum, less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120 000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. (bolding mine-Tony)

Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that mass shootings represent anecdotal distortions of, rather than representations of, the actions of “mentally ill” people as an aggregate group. By most estimates, there were fewer than 200 mass shootings reported in the United States—often defined as crimes in which four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events—between 1982 and 2012.27,28 Recent reports suggest that 160 of these events occurred after the year 200029 and that mass shootings rose particularly in 2013 and 2014. As anthropologists and sociologists of medicine have noted, the time since the early 1980s also marked a consistent broadening of diagnostic categories and an expanding number of persons classifiable as “mentally ill.” Scholars who study violence prevention thus contend that mass shootings occur far too infrequently to allow for the statistical modeling and predictability—factors that lie at the heart of effective public health interventions. Swanson argues that mass shootings denote “rare acts of violence” that have little predictive or preventive validity in relation to the bigger picture of the 32 000 fatalities and 74 000 injuries caused on average by gun violence and gun suicide each year in the United States.

I’m gonna crank that up for the people in the back:

A very small number of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illnesses.


The percentage of  violent crimes committed by mentally ill people with guns is lower than the national average for people not diagnosed with a mental illness.


I get it though. It is not difficult to understand why people believe in a causal link between mental illness and mass shootings. Gun violence often seems to occur without warning. In case after case friends and family members say they had no clue that the shooter had violent thoughts let alone the will to make them a reality (Eric Paddock, brother of the gunman, expressed similar thoughts). They often express shock and disbelief that the person they know could just snap and go on a murderous spree.  Sometimes the killer leaves behind a manifesto, detailing their plans and/or revealing their motivations (this was the case with the misogynistic killer Eliot Rodger). Other times, the killer is taken alive and can be directly consulted about their motives (the racist killer of 9 churchgoers, Dylan “bring him some Burger King” Roof). In situations like those, determining a motive and establishing a timeline is made easier. Though there is no guarantee the killer will cooperate or that the manifesto is especially revealing, those are starting points for authorities.

But when the killer leaves behind nothing but their lifeless body, empty shell casings, a cache of weapons, and hundreds of  casualties–what then?  How do we figure out what motivated him? It’s probably fruitless to expect people to avoid speculating and simply wait for the conclusion of the investigation.  Our attention spans are not that long (this investigation is going to take months, maybe much longer) . We have a hunger to find out answers as quickly as we can (especially when we are trying to process a tragedy), which is why immediately after the shooting was over (hell, probably while it was going on) speculation began. Could racism have motivated his actions? Theoretically, sure, but he fired into a crowd of country music fans, and unless he has a strong sense of self-hatred, I doubt he fired on the crowd bc of their racial makeup. He was gunning people down indiscriminately, so gender may not have played a strong role either. Other possible factors are non-starters too—Paddock was a multi-millionaire, so he wasn’t hurting for money. There is also no known connection between him and any terrorist organization.  That leaves only one possible answer*: he had to have been mentally ill.


Who in their right mind would try to kill hundreds of people?

Who stockpiles weapons and ammunition and kills himself without telling anyone why he did it?

“There must have been something wrong with his brain.”

Normal” people don’t commit such acts.”Since he was responsible for this massacre, and normal people don’t do these things, he has to be abnormal.”

All of the above are common responses following gun violence. They all reference the mental state of the shooter either directly or indirectly implying that the shooting was the result of a mental illness. That’s a pretty tidy answer. In one fell swoop, we get to comfort ourselves in the knowledge that the shooter is “one of them” (he is definitely not “one of us”, that could never happen to us) the shooter is filed  away from the “normal people”, and into the “abnormal/mentally ill crowd” (that’s the crowd routinely ignored until a new bout of gun violence). But how do we really know that’s the answer? Well, our biases are often validated by stories in the media. In the wake of gun violence, the media fuels commonly held perceptions about mass shooters. Chief among those perceptions is (drumroll please)…that mentally ill people are prone to commit acts of violence.  Yah! That means our conclusion was right, no?

Actually, no. It wasn’t.  Recall the shouting I did earlier?

A very small number of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illnesses.


The percentage of  violent crimes committed by mentally ill people with guns is lower than the national average for people not diagnosed with a mental illness.


So that means we are effectively stuck right back where we were in the beginning–with no explanation for why a former accountant (or any shooter) would amass numerous firearms and go on a shooting spree. But maybe…if we can’t find a cause, perhaps we can look for any behaviors Paddock shared with other mass shooters.  Maybe this behavior is shared by enough mass shooters that it carries some predictive power and can work as an early warning signal of sorts to avoid potential future shooting scenarios. What do we know of Paddock? Multimillionaire. Former accountant. Gambler. Apolitical. No known religious affiliation. No history of violence. No…wait a minute. Paddock was known to  psychologically abuse his girlfriend:

Esperanza Mendoza, supervisor of the Starbucks in the Virgin River Casino, told the Los Angeles Times that Paddock was known to workers because he would verbally berate his girlfriend, Marilou Danley, in front of them.

“It happened a lot,” she said.

Mendoza described one encounter in which Danley asked Paddock if she could use his casino card to buy their drinks.

“He would glare down at her and say — with a mean attitude — ‘You don’t need my casino card for this. I’m paying for your drink, just like I’m paying for you.’ Then she would softly say, ‘OK’ and step back behind him,” Mendoza said. “He was so rude to her in front of us.”

That definitely counts as psychological abuse.  Not physical, no (that we know of), but there are more forms of violence than simply physical. Intimate Partner Violence is one of the most common forms of violence against women, and includes:

acts of physical aggression, psychological abuse, forced intercourse
and other forms of sexual coercion, and various controlling behaviors such as isolating a person from family and friends or restricting access to information and assistance.


At this point, the evidence of Paddock’s abuse is anecdotal. I’m betting there are more examples, bc who engages in psychological abuse of their significant other only a couple of times (plus the Starbucks barista said the verbal abuse happened frequently)? At any rate, that does give authorities something to go on.  If it turns out that Paddock abused her more than this (whether physical, emotional, psychological), he’ll join a long line of mass shooters with a history of domestic violence (I’m ready to put him in that category already, but I know law enforcement officials will not). In an analysis of mass shootings from January 2009 through December 2016,  Everytown for Gun Safety found:


  • From 2009-2016 in the U.S., there have been 156 mass shootings—incidents in which four or more people were shot and killed, not including the shooter. These incidents resulted in 1,187 victims shot: 848 people were shot and killed, and 339 people were shot and injured. In addition, 66 perpetrators killed themselves after a mass shooting, and another 17 perpetrators were shot and killed by responding law enforcement.

  • The majority of mass shootings—54 percent of cases—were related to domestic or family violence.

  • Mass shootings significantly impacted children: 25 percent of mass shooting fatalities (211) were children. This is primarily driven by mass shootings related to domestic or family violence, in which over 40 percent of fatalities were children.

  • In nearly half of the shootings—42 percent of cases—the shooter exhibited warning signs before the shooting indicating that they posed a danger to themselves or others. These red flags included acts, attempted acts, or threats of violence towards oneself or others; violations of protective orders; or evidence of ongoing substance abuse.

  • More than one-third of the shootings—34 percent—involved a shooter who was prohibited from possessing firearms.

  • Only ten percent of incidents took place in “gun-free zones”, or areas where civilians are prohibited from carrying firearms and there is not a regular armed law enforcement presence (armed security guards, for example). The vast majority of incidents—63 percent—took place entirely in private homes.


Seems to me, when you look at the evidence, it is more likely that domestic violence is a red flag for future gun violence more than mental illness.  Sadly, many people react with their gut, seeking quick and easy answers, rather than more nuanced, complex ones.  In blaming mental illness though, these people perpetuate stigma against those with mental illness, making it harder for them to come forward and receive the help they need.  In turn, that contributes to the high cost of mental illness on economies around the world. We do need much more robust mental healthcare system in the U.S. and across the planet . We also need to care more, much, much more about the mental health of our fellow humans (which is one reason I’m so adamant about focusing on the psychological impact of hate speech). And we need to expand the national dialogue surrounding gun violence beyond mass shootings. While they are horrific, they represent a very small percentage of the overall gun violence we see in the U.S. Firearm-related suicides are a much larger percentage of gun violence in this country and are one of the leading causes of death in people ages 10-24. Rather than the focus being so narrowly focused on preventing mass shootings (which we very much need to work to eliminate), perhaps we would have better luck in reducing firearm-related deaths if more attention was paid to preventing suicide by gun.

No matter what we do, we need to stop othering mentally ill people (which is why I and many others are adamant about making changes to our vocabulary to eliminate cognitive based slurs and making our social media spaces ableism free). They are valued and have worth–neither of which should be impacted by having a mental illness. And they deserve to be able to live their lives to the fullest they desire, with love and support, and without discrimination.












*I’m counting only those theories that orbit the realm of plausible. I’m not counting the ridiculous theories proliferating in the rightwing corner of the net. Paddock had no known political affiliations, so he wasn’t antifa or a black bot protester.

Mental illness is not the cause of gun violence

One thought on “Mental illness is not the cause of gun violence

  1. 1

    Maybe the DSM-6, when it comes out, will correct this deficiency.
    They™ could surely make up recognise a disorder specific to guns.
    Also something for your previous post.

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