"It's Not a Guns Issue. It's a Mental Health Issue." But What If It's Both?

Gar Smith
Thursday November 30, 2017 - 03:44:00 PM

On Sunday, November 5, 2017, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people. The victims ranged in age from 5 to 72 years old. Responding to yet another mass-killing in the US, President Donald Trump quickly moved to deflect growing public concern by claiming: "This isn't a gun situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level." (Try to imagine a politician responding to the Boston Marathon bombing by proclaiming: "This isn't a bomb situation. It's a mental health problem.") 

Across the US, anti-gun activists cringed at this analysis (some viewed the phrase "at the highest level" as an unwitting self-diagnosis by the reprimander-in-chief). Meanwhile, across the country, thousands of psychologists were also cringing. 

Once again, the "crazy gunman" meme had been unleashed in the mediastream, shifting attention from the weapons to the individual and suggesting that the solution involved controlling individuals, not their arsenals. Among those calling for a "national database of the mentally ill" was Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association. 

Stan Goff, a retired Special Forces Master Sergeant and the author of four books on war and militarism, offered what seemed like a sensible interim solution to the epidemic of American gun violence: "I feel that gun buyers should have to take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Disorder Inventory [because] most gun crime is done by people that would not pass this test." 

But here's the danger. The "crazed gunman" scenario instantly demonizes millions of everyday citizens dealing with a vast spectrum of mental challenges – most of which pose no risk of violence whatsoever. 

The concern is understandable. There are something like 300 million privately owned pistols, rifles and shotguns in the US today. At the same time, an estimated 26.1 percent of Americans over the age of 18—about one in four—have been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. On its face, it seems like an explosive combination of statistics. 

Writing in Politico in the aftermath of the Sutherland massacre, psychiatrist Jonathan M. Metzel noted that "making gun violence about mental health is a crazy idea." As Metzel observed, "very little evidence supports the notion that mental illness in and of itself causes assaults." In fact, "many of the most common mental illnesses cause patients to withdraw from society, rather than violently attack it." 

A 2014 Vanderbilt University study found 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." 

Clearly, many infamous mass-killers—Devin Kelley, Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, James Holmes—had troubling psychiatric histories. But they also shared other commonalities. For one thing, they were all white males. According to a Mother Jones magazine survey of 95 mass shootings in the US between1982-2017, white men committed 64% of the crimes. Of the 95 mass killings (defined as involving the deaths of four or more), 44 of the killers were white males. The average age of the killers was 35, though the youngest was just 11 years old. (African Americans committed close to 16% of the mass shootings, while Asians accounted for around 9%.) While Asian shooters were overrepresented (at more than 2.5 their percentage of the overall population), Latinos were notably absent. 

Behavioral Red Flags for Mass Killers 

As Metzel noted, if you set aside mental disabilities, there are many social signals and personal behaviors that prove "far more predictive of gun violence." These include: "Substance abuse, male gender, past histories of . . . domestic violence" and easy access to firearms. As the New York Times concluded: "[T]he only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is [our] astronomical number of guns." 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016 saw more than 33,000 gun-related deaths in the US (two-thirds of these gun-deaths were suicides). "Interpersonal" gun violence in 2016 killed about 11,000 Americans (up from 9,600 in 2015). 

American culture is intentionally saturated with images of violence. Our waking hours are filled with programmed assaults of conflict and combat glaring from the screens of our televisions, movie theaters, videogames, and iPhones. 

As former Special Forces soldier Stan Goff observes: "Guns are male icons." Possessing a weapon is considered "masculine" in that it confers an awesome amount of power. As Goff puts it: "It is an instrument with which you can take a life, in an instant, with the quarter-inch movement of a single finger." 

A 2015 National Institute of Health investigation of "Guns, Anger, and Mental Disorders" found a "co-occurrence of pathological anger traits and possessing or carrying a gun . . . with and without certain mental disorders." The NIH's National Comorbidity Study reported that "gun violence and mental illness are complex but different public health problems that intersect only on their edges" and that only "a very small proportion" of interpersonal violence was linked to serious mental problems like "schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression." 

As Alex Yablon reports in the Washington Post: "While their personalities may unsettle family members or acquaintances, mass shooters rarely meet the federal criteria for being deemed mentally unfit to purchase a weapon. A diagnosis or even an inpatient stay at a psychiatric hospital is insufficient. The background-check system blocks people from buying guns only if a court, board, commission or other lawful authority deems them mentally ill. People committed by family members aren’t flagged and may buy guns." 

Nonetheless, most states do not rate assaults as a felony and the federal background check permits individuals with violent histories to purchase guns. California is one of the few states that lists "assault" as grounds for denying a weapons purchase. 

Potential killers are routinely found to be profoundly alienated and withdrawn from normal social life. In a 2011 essay, criminologist James Alan Fox observed that "most mass murderers are clear-headed and deliberate" and that their journey to mass murder "typically involves years of disappointment and failure that produce a mix of profound hopelessness and deep-seated resentment." 

Criminologist Peter Squires believes that America's "individualistic culture" promotes mass shootings arguing that "many other countries where gun ownership is high, such as Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Israel . . . tend to have more tight-knit societies where a strong social bond supports people through crises, and mass killings are fewer."  

Politics and Bullets 

Is there a political bias among the perpetrators of gun violence? According to gun-toting musician Ted Nugent, there is. Nugent has posted a list that purports to show that "Not one NRA or Tea Party member, Republican or conservative" is associated with a long list of gun deaths dating back to the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. According to the list (which has been circulating since at least 2012), Democrats were responsible for the attacks on president James Garfield, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and 14 mass-shootings committed between 1983 and 2015. 

However, when the fact-finding sleuths at Snopes.com put this claim to the test, it turned out that ascribing this curated selection of assaults to registered Democrats was "mostly false." The only case that rated as "mostly true" was alleged JFK assassin Harvey Lee Oswald, who proclaimed himself to be "a communist and a worker." Most of the people on the list appeared to have no political affiliation and "were not motivated by politics." 

Some recent incidents are more readable. Edgar Maddison Welch, the individual who opened fire inside Washington, DC's Comet Ping Pong (believing it to be the site of a secret child-sex-trafficking operation headed by Hillary Clinton), had been prompted by extreme right-wing conspiracy tales. Robert Dear, a gunman who opened fire on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility, was a consumer of absolutist pro-life proselytizing and Charleston Church shooter Dylan Roof was a self-admitted "sociopath" and white supremacist. 

It is an observable fact that many gun owners – especially those who see weapons possession as a right of citizenship granted by the Second Amendment and proudly claim membership in the NRA—share conservative Republican values. 

According to Psychology Today, a study from 1999 found that "those who believed that having a gun makes the home safer were more likely to be young, male, and affiliated with the Republican party; to have no children at home; to have finished 12 years or fewer of education; and to have low levels of trust in police for protection." 

And, in a 2015 Guardian article titled ""Gun Demanding: The Psychology of Why People Want Firearms," Dean Burnett wrote: "Gun ownership is more commong amongst those with right-wing views, so a stronger self-interest, authoritarian personality and mistrust of other groups may make a gun feel like more of an essential item." 

According to 2015 survey conducted by National Opinion Research Center (an independent research organization based at the University of Chicago) [https://apnews.com/85c182d0976f44b0a54780b7df8633bb], 32 percent of Americans homeowners possessed at least one gun, which tied a record low set in 2010. At the same time, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system showed an increase in the total number of firearms being purchased. That means more guns were winding up in the hands of fewer people. And who were these "special buyers"? 

As the Associated Press reported, the NORC poll revealed that "half of Republicans live in households with at least one gun, which is twice as high as ownership among Democrats or independents." 

At the end of the day, however, the actual political dimension of mass-shootings has yet to be successfully mapped. Snoops concluded that determining a shooter's political affiliation is difficult, at best. 

Combat Blowback 

In the wake of Devin Kelley's deadly rampage, the Air Force was heavily criticized for failing to alert the FBI and police regarding a record of domestic violence that should have blocked Kelley from purchasing weapons after his dishonorable discharge. 

Meanwhile, it is a sad matter of record that soldiers who return from overseas combat are currently killing themselves with alarming regularity. Every year since 2008, around 200 veterans have used their personal weapons to commit suicide. 

World Beyond War founder David Swanson recently posted an intriguing piece of research that raises the possibility that, in the US, mass shooters are "disproportionately veterans." While admitting the difficulty of producing a definitive study, Swanson's review of 82 recent instances of mass-killings found that 34% of the shooters had served in the US military. Since veterans constitute 14.76% of the general population, that suggests that "veterans are more twice as likely to be mass shooters." 

And it could be getting worse. 

On November 15, Newsweek reported that the Pentagon, plagued by low enlistments, was loosening its recruitment requirements to accept anyone who suffered from "a history of mental illness, drug abuse and self-mutilation." (In a nod toward non-militaristic mellowness, the Army's new recruitment standard would also embrace marijuana users.) 

"The Weapons Effect" 

In 1967, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported on a series of University of Wisconsin experiments that suggested gun owners could be more inclined to violent behaviors. In fact, the "mere presence" of a gun, raised the level of apprehension and hostility among test subjects gathered in a room. The psychologists dubbed this phenomenon "the Weapons Effect." As Emeritus Professor of Psychology Leonard Berkowitz put it: “Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.” 

Instead of mental health being the "cause" of gun violence (as gun supporters stoutly maintain), weapons were seen as an all-too-available "means" of expressing violent anger. "Pathological impulsive anger, as a personality trait… can become lethal when combined with access to firearms." In addition to such anger traits as PTSD and "intermittent explosive disorder," the NIH study identified some surprising co-behaviors that also linked to gun ownership. These included "pathological gambling, eating disorders, alcohol and illicit drug use disorders." 

The Strangulation Link 

In a 2014 report, the US Sentencing Commission identified another key "domestic violence" behavior shared by many mass killers: attempted strangulation. 

As the Washington Post reports, Sutherland Springs shooter Devin Patrick Kelley had strangled his wife. Omar Mateen, the gunman who targeted Orlando's Pulse nightclub, had attempted to strangle both of his wives. Cedric Ford, a man who fired bullets into 17 co-workers in a Kansas shooting spree, and Esteban Santiago, who gunned down five victims at the Fort Laundedale Airport, were both wife-stranglers. 

The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention characterizes strangulation as a "penultimate act" that makes homicide seven times more likely. According to TISP's Gael Strack, "Once the hands are on the neck, the very next step is homicide." 

Despite the fact that attempted strangulation is now ranked as a felony in 45 states, the link to homicide is not widely recognized by many police departments. (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has even argued that banning people convicted of domestic violence from buying weapons would be "unconstitutional.") 

Is America Psycho? 

In 2006, University of Texas at Austin journalism professor Robert Jenson raised an intriguing question: "Can a nation have a coherent character?" Turning to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Jenson went looking for a match for America's psyche and found "one category jumps out: Narcissistic Personality Disorder." A full decade before the electoral college appointment of Donald Trump, Jenson saw an America that foreshadowed the arrival of "the Narcissist-in-Chief." There are nine criteria for meeting the clinical definition of NPD: 

  1. a grandiose sense of self-importance.
  2. preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. believes he or she is special and unique.
  4. requires excessive admiration.
  5. sense of entitlement.
  6. interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
  7. lacks empaty.
  8. Often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
"This disorder is bipartisan," Jenson wrote. On both sides of the aisle, politicians never hesitate to call the US "the greatest country that ever existed on the face of the Earth." 

In February 1991, President George H. W. Bush defied US and international law an ordered the Pentagon to attack Iraq, claiming: "The US has a new credibility. What we say goes." 

In March 2003, President George W. Bush, announced the US would unilaterally invade Iraq a second time "and we really don't need United Nations approval to do so." 

This sense of entitlement is not limited to Washington, DC, Jensen noted: "Even if we swept the halls of Congress and the White House clean of every corrupt and cruel politician, the deeper self-indulgence of an affluent culture would be untouched." 

Jensen cited a 2002 poll that reported 48 percent of Americans believed their country enjoyed "special protection from God." (Coincidentally, a 2015 Gallup Poll reported that guns could be found in 42 percent of American homes.) 

At the same time, more than two million American adults are struggling with manic depression (aka bipolar disorder), experiencing severe mood swings, delusions of grandeur, and flawed judgment that can result in outbursts of uncontrollable rage. (This is not necessarily Apocalyptic news. The Mayo Clinic has shown that most mass-killers do not suddenly "snap": instead, they tend to carefully prepare their attacks over many weeks or months.) 

Could Gun Obsession Itself Be a Mental Disorder? 

One of the problems with narcissistic individuals (and cultures) is that when they encounter criticism or reproach, they generally react with anger and hostility. While Donald Trump can blow off his narcissistic steam by firing off a tweet mocking his detractors, if you're an unemployed Joe with a bad marriage and no Twitter followers, a gun may be the perfect replacement companion—always by your side, unquestioning, and ready to do your bidding. 

In 2015, an article on "The Psychology of Guns" in Psychology Today noted a "Freudian link between guns and potency" that provides "a way for someone to equalize power and overcome perceived oppression." In a 2014 Gallup Poll, 63% of Americans believed having a gun made the home safer when, in fact, the risks posed by weapons in the home were far greater than risks posed by criminal activity targeting the household. Despite this perception, research clearly has established that "having a gun in the home is associated with a greater risk of accidental death, homicide, suicide, and a greater risk especially of female and childhood death by firearm." 

In a 2014 essay, Thom Hartmann wondered aloud whether being a "Gun Nut" was "A Psychiatric Disorder." Hartmann offered the following description of obsessive gun-lovers: 

They are fanatical about guns and alleged gun rights. They see guns as their security planket, objects of worship, and the solution to most problems…. They imagine themselves as under attack when there is no political threat…. They often hoard guns and ammo….. They want to take pictures of their infants holding guns, or let their 7-year-olds play with Uzi's at gunshows. 

But when Hartmann turned to the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, the closest match he could find for his "gun nut" personality was "obsessive compulsive disorder." 

The NIH's Comorbidity Study provides the first evidence of the link between individuals with "anger traits" (outbursts, smashing things, fistfights) and gun ownership. More than a third (36.5%) of the respondents with hair-trigger tempers admitted to owning guns. More than a quarter (25.7) admitted to owning 2 to 10-plus weapons.  

The NIH found that people with anger traits and guns "were more likely to be male, younger, married, and to live in outlying areas around metropolitan centers rather that in central cities." (That last category is a euphemism for "poor.") 

And the NIH noted a disturbing trend in these numbers: the more guns an individual owned, the more likely they were to carry them on the street and to use them in acts of violence. "People owning 6 or more guns were about 4 times as likely to be in the high-risk anger/carry group as those owning only 1 gun." 

Given these tendencies, excessive gun ownership can be seen as an expression of mental instability. The Second Amendment was not written to encourage citizens to amass deadly private arsenals. 

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had assembled a collection of 47 weapons, including the 23 that he managed to install in his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel before unleashing a burst of more than 1000 bullets that claimed 58 lives and wounded nearly 500. 

Such a prodigious collection of firearms and such a deadly outcome suggests a clinical condition. Excessive gun ownership could well be a diagnosable psychological malady. Perhaps it could be called Ballistic Aggressive Disorder/Arms-Hoarding Syndrome (BADAHS). 

Whatever you call it, gun violence in America is something that truly sets our nation apart. Something else that sets the US apart from the majority of the world's nations is our seemingly laissez-faire and class-based attitudes toward guns and gun violence. 

As Dr. Joe Pierre, writes in Psychology Today: "With all the concern about mass shootings in white American suburbia, where is the talk about how to solve the problem of inner-city youth violence, such as in Chicago where the gun-related deaths outnumber deaths by mass shootings by orders of magnitude? …. In the wake of yet another mass shooting, where are the calls to understand and prevent violence in at-risk youth and culture at large?"