Gun crime and mental illness in the USA; the bigger picture…

Mass shootings in America are shockingly becoming more and more frequent, and are often linked to mental health issues with little or no evidence. Taya Black questions if a lack of support for those with mental illness is truly the problem that needs addressing in the US, or whether Obama’s campaign to impose stricter gun laws and better background checks could be part of the solution to crack down on gun violence.

For decades, we have heard shocking news reports from our neighbours over the pond about mass shootings that take place each year, the most recent tragedies being the Colorado movie theatre, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. These unnecessary massacres often leave us feeling heartbroken, confused and asking why something like this could happen again and again.

The Republican National Rifle Association (NRA) believe that arming Americans further is essential for increasing security and blame the American National Institutes of Health for not doing enough for those with mental health issues. Where as the Democratic government proposes stricter background checks need to be put in place, restricting the access to firearms to reduce the risk of mass-shootings happening again, so what really is going on?

In wake of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December 2012, the death of 20 children and six adults resulted in President Obama launching a campaign to tighten the questionable gun laws in place, in order to prevent similar events from happening again. The proposed bill, which would create a universal background check, was called the Manchin-Toomey Background Checks Bill.

A statement released on the Organising For Action website read: “Most gun owners use their guns legally and responsibly, and the President strongly believes in an individual right to bear arms, but we need to take action to better protect our children and communities from tragic mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Connecticut.”

The main objective of the Manchin-Toomey Background Checks Bill, included closing the loopholes in present background checks which differ in every state by introducing universal background checks on firearms purchases, an assault weapons ban, and limiting magazine capacity to 10 cartridges. However on April 17th 2013, the bill that would put restrictions on gun control failed to pass the US Senate by a mere six votes.

This decision shocked a nation and an outraged Breaking Bad actor, Byran Cranston, tweeted: “Background checks on gun purchases bill –fails, thanks to the fear mongering of the NRA and the cowardice of the 46 senators. Shame on you.”

Before this Bill failed to pass the US Senate, the NRA had continually pushed opinions on gun violence, shifting the blame to issues such as mental illness and the lack of support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Chris W.Cox, NRA’s executive director of the lobbying branch released a statement seen on the NRA ILA website on April 17th saying: “As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools.”

Chris W. Cox continued: “Today, the misguided Manchin-Toomey-Schumer proposal failed in the U.S. Senate. This amendment would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.”

Instead of uniting a nation on an appropriate method on how to deal with gun violence and what actions to take, a clear divide between the pro-firearm supporters of the NRA, and anti-gun campaigners has appeared, each with their own agenda, and each spreading opposing messages.

And yet, although improving mental health service is also on Obama’s agenda, there seems to be little or no evidence that improving America’s health service would actually reduce gun crime.

A study carried out by The New York Times in 2000, suggested almost half of the perpetrators looked at “showed signs of serious mental health problems”.  The profile looked at 102 killers from 100 different rampages in the US between 1949-2000, but also highlighted that it can be hard to spot and is not always possible to diagnose someone who is at risk with mental illness.

“It appears ‘risk for violence’ in psychotic illnesses is highest earlier in the course of illness, frequently before people are identified as mentally ill and receive treatment,” said Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who met with Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on reducing gun violence.

There are many studies that indicate that improving screenings and treatment will have limited use in preventing this type of killing, as psychiatric professionals cannot always identify those at risk, and many of the actual perpetrators of mass shootings had no contact with the mental-health system.

This is not to say mental health should be overlooked, as it is hard to imagine the culprits of such acts could be classed as clinically sane, especially seeing as many of the killers turn the gun on themselves and commit suicide-indicating signs of depression. It is just not necessarily the only cause for concern that needs to be addressed.

Granted, the suicide rates in the US are much higher than in countries with better developed mental health systems and more restrictive access to guns. Those who suffer from mental illness are much more likely to harm themselves than other people; so in retrospect, improving the mental health service in America could make a significant difference in preventing at least one type of violence, just not necessarily mass shootings.

When it comes to the current ‘background checks’ in place for America’s gun controls, there are many loopholes and some of the laws differ in different states, which makes it easy for almost anyone to get hold of a firearm.

It can be argued that pinning the blame on mental illness is the easy alternative for pro-firearm organisations such as the NRA who have been implementing easy-access gun regulations since 1871. According to a study by online publication Mother Jones, the NRA and their political allies have passed a grand total of 99 laws in the last four years making it easier to own guns, to carry them and to conceal them from the US government.

Furthermore when filling out the NRA-approved National Instant Background Check System, Question F on the form asks: ‘Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective or have you been committed to a mental institution?’ for which, a simple yes/no reply is all that is required and considered an honest-enough answer.

Yet, despite the repeated digs at mental illnesses and the corresponding health service, the bigger picture shows a direct correlation between the colossal rise in guns in the USA and the rise in mass shootings.

The five-month study conducted by Mother Jones, looked at more than 60 American mass shootings, and stated: “We found that the rate of mass shootings has increased in recent years-at a time when America has been flooded with millions of additional firearms and a barrage of new laws has made it easier than ever to carry them in public places, including bars, parks, and schools.”

The Mother Jones research also collected statistical data from national surveys and manufacturing sales data to pinpoint that there has been a colossal 50% increase in the number of firearms currently in America, rising from 200 million in 1995 to a present 300 million, indicating that mental health issues may not be the main problem that needs dealing with.

“The US population, now over 314 million, grew by about 20% during the period where the number of firearms increased by 50%. At this rate, there will be a gun for every man, women and child before the decade ends. However, there are probably already more guns then there are people in America, as a precise firearm count just isn’t possible; most guns in the United States aren’t registered and the government has scant ability to track them” commented Mark Follman, editor of Mother Jones.

A leading expert on gun violence at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr. Stephen Hargarten, was interviewed in the Mother Jones study and believes that America’s mental health services are not to blame, and it is not a coincidence that there has been a rise in the number of guns in the US and an increase in mass shootings:

“There is no evidence indicating that arming Americans further will help prevent mass shootings or reduce the carnage. To the contrary, there appears to be a relationship between the proliferation of firearms and the rise in mass shootings. On average, there have been two per year since 1982, yet, in 2012 alone there were seven mass shootings, and a record number of casualties, with more than 140 people injured or killed.”

Although America’s mental health service may need improving, it is not the main issue that needs to be looked at when it comes to gun crime. Solid research has shown that there is a stronger relationship between the rise in firearms in the US and the rise in mass shootings than there is between mental illness and gun violence. It seems clear that this issue has become more of a question on political power struggles than practical resolutions to critical topic.


1559 Words – written for The Week


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