Monday, August 05, 2019

Blaming mass shootings on mental illness is a red herring

I know I tend to do posts about gun control whenever there is yet another mass shooting in America (there have been many over the years - both shootings and posts), and really I'm over it. But I thought it worth commenting on Donald Trump's latest foray into the subject, in which he calls the latest shooters "twisted monsters", and tries to make a direct link between mental illness and gun violence: "Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun".
This, of course, is to try to take the focus off gun control in order to protect his gun-toting rural constituency. But it's a false conclusion. And don't even get me started on Trump's other solution to the problem: to extend the death penalty.
The mental health connection often comes up after mass shootings, but it's a red herring according to mental health experts,  researchers and criminologists. Some gunmen are indeed mentally unbalanced to some degree, but most people with mental illnesses are not violent, and are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Research shows that a country's rate of gun ownership is a much better predictor of mass shootings than mental health. Even the US Secret Service has concluded that "mental illness, alone, is not a risk factor" in public mass attacks.
I don't have mental health statistics at hand, but there is a stark differences in the rate of gun violence in the USA and other Western countries which are not dissimilar in many ways. In 2017, for example, the USA saw 4.43 deaths from gun violence per 100,000 population. Now, this may pale into insignificance in comparison with ultra-violent countries like El Salvadora and Venezuela, which have rates almost ten times as high, and several other Central American and Caribbean countries are substantially worse, as do countries like the Philippines, Lesotho and Brazil. But these countries are beset by social and economic difficulties (not to mention gang and drug cultures) that put them in quite a different league to America.
When we look at other more comparable western democracies, though, the real differences appear. Canada, which arguably has a similar gun culture in some demographics, although much less so than America, has a rate of 0.47 per 100,000, an order of magnitide lower. And we think things are bad here! Denmark has a rate of 0.15, the UK 0.06. Most developed Asian countries have rates even lower. Clearly, there is something very wrong in the USA, and the big difference is not in mental health, but in gun ownership and gun culture.
So, in fact, it is the gun that pulls the trigger after all, Mr. Trump. And branding shooters as monsters, loonies or any of his other non-PC epithets is not going to help anything.

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