What Should the Second Amendment Community Do About Mental Illness and Guns?

Man staring at his dark, shadowed, image in a mirror

From time to time, a story appears in the news about a mass shooter who we later discover had a mental illness. From the man who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to other shooters, mental illness sometimes accompanies crimes.

Most U.S. states and the federal government have passed laws restricting gun ownership for people who have been judged to be mentally ill. Many gun owners and defenders of the Second Amendment agree that people whose mental illness may drive them to shoot people should not have access to firearms.

Ar-15, police radio, black tactical gear
Studies often don’t mention the reluctance of gun owners with mental health or addiction problems to seek help because the gun owner fears that others will confiscate their firearms or prevent them from owning a firearm in the future.

But what is the real connection between mental illness and mass shootings? What about the connection between mental illness and suicide? How can people who have a mental illness be persuaded to seek help, such as therapy or addiction rehab, if they fear losing their firearms as a result?

Laws Concerning Firearms and Mental Illness

U.S. federal legislation prohibits anyone from selling a firearm or ammunition to a person who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to any mental institution.”

Several U.S. states have laws restricting people with mental illnesses from possessing firearms. Even Texas, a state well-known for its many gun advocates, prohibits people from possessing a license to carry a handgun if they are chemically dependent or are incapable of exercising “sound judgment” concerning the use and storage of a handgun.

What does science say about mental illness and gun violence?

An article in the Annals of Epidemiology cites several studies to chronicle different perceptions about the connections between mental illness and gun violence. Gun control groups advocate severe restrictions on gun ownership for all Americans, whether they have a mental illness or not, as a means to reduce gun violence.

Meanwhile, groups that invoke the Second Amendment, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) suggest addressing the mental health angle and proposing new measures such as establishing a national database for people with mental illnesses.

It appears that scientific findings differ from some perceptions of mental illness and gun violence. A 1990 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) concluded that a small but measurable link exists between mental illness and violent behavior.

According to this study, roughly 12 percent of people with severe mental illness were prone to violence, seven percent if the people didn’t have addictions to drugs or alcohol. That compares to two percent of people with no known mental illness.

Indoor shooting range with firearms and hearing protection on a shooting bench
It appears that scientific findings differ from some perceptions of mental illness and gun violence. A 1990 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) concluded that a small but measurable link exists between mental illness and violent behavior.

Over a lifetime, the rate of committing violence was 15 percent for those without mental illness, 33 percent for those with mental illness, and 55 percent for people with mental illness and substance abuse problems. The acts of violence were not solely gun-related.

But other studies have suggested that there was no higher risk of violence between people who had been recently discharged from a mental institution and the general population, unless an untreated drug or alcohol addiction existed. Scholars believe that living in high crime areas and socioeconomic disadvantages contributed more to violence than mental illness.

Subsequent studies did find a statistically significant but still small relationship between mental illness and violence, with substance abuse problems tending to exacerbate the phenomenon.

Ominous looking man with double barrel shotgun and fire raging in the background
U.S. federal legislation already prohibits anyone from selling a firearm or ammunition to a person who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to any mental institution.” So, why are current laws not being enforced?

Meanwhile, suicides represent 60 percent of gun violence deaths in the United States. People suffering from a mental illness such as depression are more likely to kill themselves than take the lives of others.

Is there a connection between mass shootings and mental illness?

It appears that the relationship between mass shootings and mental illness is tenuous at best. Researchers at Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry concluded that since 1990, 11 percent of mass murderers and eight percent of mass shooters had serious mental health disorders. The researchers stated that “U.S.-based mass shooters were more likely to have legal histories, use recreational drugs or misuse alcohol, or have histories of non-psychotic psychiatric or neurologic symptoms.”

As for children and teens who commit school shootings, the Brookings Institute suggested that about half of school shooters have feelings of rejection and were often bullied. Also, half have a history of mental health disorders. The study added that the majority of children with psychological problems do not bring guns to school or shoot classmates and teachers.

How can the Second Amendment community help?

Studies often don’t mention the reluctance of gun owners with mental health or addiction problems to seek help because the gun owner fears that others will confiscate their firearms or prevent them from owning a firearm in the future. At the same time, Second Amendment advocates don’t want people with mental health issues committing mass shootings, or, more likely, taking their own lives — any more than the non gun owning community do.

A gun owner, D. J. Schuette, who also has anxiety and depression, has proposed something of a solution. His mental illness is well-controlled by medication. But to be safer, he stores his handgun in a locked safe, and only his wife knows the combination. Since he doesn’t have easy access to his weapon, he can’t spontaneously take his firearm to kill himself or someone else.

Using this tactic and similar approaches, gun owners who have mental health or addiction issues can more safely secure their firearms and limit access to them. People with children, who are not legally allowed to own firearms, can do the same, as the Brookings study suggested.

Man staring at his dark, shadowed, image in a mirror
A gun owner, D. J. Schuette, who also has anxiety and depression, has proposed something of a solution. His mental illness is well-controlled by medication. But to be safer, he stores his handgun in a locked safe, and only his wife knows the combination.

Groups such as the NRA might want to consider lobbying state and federal governments to consider codifying such arrangements into laws.

If they follow such guidelines, gun owners with mental health and addiction issues could still possess firearms, albeit under supervision, and safely seek the help they need to treat and control their health.

No one wants someone suffering from mental illness to harm themself or others, but lawmakers and certain stigmas have made it difficult for gun owners in need to get treatment. The problem is easy to define, but the solution is another story. How do you think the mental health and firearms can be managed? Share your answer in the comment section.

Pamela Zuber has been a writer and editor at Sunshine Behavioral Health since 2016. Her writing has appeared on several websites as well as in numerous reference books and databases. After earning a degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan and a history degree from Oakland University, she continues to learn and apply her newfound knowledge to her writing. She hopes her work can inform readers, help them find assistance, and eliminate stigmas about addiction and mental health conditions.

Sources – Recovery in a Quiet and Welcoming Environment – Possession of Firearms by People with Mental Illness – Mental Illness and Reduction of Gun Violence and Suicide: Bringing Epidemiologic Research to Policy – Mental Health and Firearms – Violence and Psychiatric Disorder in the Community: Evidence From the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Surveys – Violence by People Discharged from Acute Psychiatric Inpatient Facilities and by Others in the Same Neighborhoods – UC Davis Health – What You Can Do – Psychotic Symptoms in Mass Shootings v. Mass Murders Not Involving Firearms: Findings from the Columbia Mass Murder Database – School Shootings: What We Know About Them, and What We Can Do to Prevent Them – A Responsible Gun Owner Despite My Mental Illness

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Comments (16)

  1. Thanks for a well-written article on this important topic. There’s no easy universal solutions and no system will prevent every atrocity. While there is a place for some legislative actions, it is ultimately individuals who must take responsibility to mitigate the inappropriate use of firearms.

    What gets the most attention in the 2A community is being the “good guy with a gun” in an active shooter situation. But that is the worst case scenario at the end of an escalation. Much more attention needs to be placed on prevention, That means supervision, people skills, de-escalation techniques, physical security, OPSEC approach to who knows you have firearms, and much much more.

  2. Firearms are nothing more than tools as are roofing hammers, kitchen knives, etc..
    People who want to commit atrocious acts or have thoughts of them will find a way to do just that regardless of the tool they use.
    Criminals exist as do folks with mental disabilities but that does not mean the whole world should have their tools taken away or restricted. Why is is mental disabilities even tied to 2nd amendment rights? Oh right, because gun control folks are always looking for a new way or emotional argument to chip away at the 2nd amendment. When it comes to what THEY want, it does not matter what the whole world wants or see’s as reason, their opinion is the ONLY one.

  3. I think that the same logic should be applied to people with mental illness as to criminals. Make them responsible for their own actions. No one can second-guess what another person can or might do. I believe that in our current political environment, there is more life damage done to people by government overreach driven by ideological activism than criminal activity. Given the current proclivity of the people who are in power to allow violent criminal offenders out of jail after repeated offenses while wanting to permanently incarcerate any who politically opposed to them, I would strip Federal power instead of increasing it. The wanton abuse of Federal authority is far more frightening to me than the fear of a “mental defective” (and think of how that determination can be abused – it could be accurately applied to many in government positions) doing damage with a firearm. Until government bodies move back to having existing laws rationally enforced by non-activist judges, I don’t think we need to worry about firearm control. Far more people are being harmed by the premeditated actions of government refusing to incarcerate violent repeat felons than by all of the highly sensationalized mass shootings. And speaking of the Las Vegas shooting, where was the comprehensive report on that? Suddenly buried? Nope, the 2nd Amendment stands and must not be infringed. I’m not interested in putting my firearms in a safe and only letting someone else have the combination, or locking the ammo away somewhere else. That is a recipe for disaster during a home invasion by a repeat felon out on bail. We have never pre-punised people in this country for what they “might do”. It’s the dictators who want to round up “subversive, mentally ill, or undesirable people” to consolidate their power. That is why we have a 2nd Amendment, to protect ourselves against against a government who puts their will above that of the people as well as those that they empower to violence to feed social fear, enabling more control.

  4. Studies lead to legislative change in this country. Real change can be achieved if platform bias is removed from the discussion. We approach every issue with a “we are right and you are wrong” stance. Working a platform to applying results of scientific conclusion specific goals can be designed. Now efforts and resources can be combined to reach achievement. Of course, the mental health of our politicians must be evaluated in order to have a baseline that is stable and reliable. That challenge alone with continue to restrict the development of bridging the divide of mental health and responsible gun ownership.

    Remember our history as an example of science v. legislation, “the world is flat -200 years later – final published agreement, the world is round”. If legislation is to be used as the primary vehicle to address mental health and gun ownership, from the 3rd century to the 22nd, we have not gained much ground of understanding the human mind. But we know how one side of the platform can profit by simply taking a stand based upon the science that is most favorable to them.

  5. Another problem is that “mental illness” can be applied to groups that fall out of favor with the powers that be, as witnessed in the Soviet Union. Do we really want the likes of those who support Canada’s Trudeau determining who is mentally sound/balanced when they themselves are so off base from reality as to equate giving a sandwich to a truck driver with supporting terrorists? It’s just about always safer to avoid giving more power to the government, i.e., to keep power out of the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

  6. There will never be a suitable answer for everyone . One side or the other will win in the end without compromise, and since that won’t happen , like I said one side will have to win . Unfortunately the non-gun people way out number gun owners, so we can only hope they never get united .

  7. I forgot to add that I believe that a past history of violent behavior is a much better indicator of un-fitness than a mild mental disorder. Also, someone with a severe mental disorder (psychosis) should be prohibited from possessing arms.

  8. I have a friend who had received medication and counseling for a “bi-polar” type illness. His out-of-state brother was holding his shotgun for him. He wanted to hunt deer and birds with me so he got a FOID card (a permit to possess firearms in some states) and brought his guns home. Before hunting season came he had an “episode” of some kind, so he gave me his guns and surrendered his FOID card by doctor’s advice. My friend said he didn’t think he would ever hurt anyone but he was following his doctor’s advice. He later told me he felt better than ever with new meds and better counseling. I think he is healthier mentally than the general population, he’s just more scrupulous.

  9. I lived in Panama for awhile. They require a psychiatric evaluation prior to issuing a firearms permit. Not a bad idea. To bad we aren’t so good about adopting best practices from elsewhere just because ‘They aint ‘Merican’.

  10. There is never going to be a perfect system. So people need to realize there is always going to be some risk. For example the vegas shooter supposedly managed to perfectly conceal even a hint that something was wrong in his life from everyone close to
    him. No law or idea could help with that other than banning guns for everyone. So there is always going to be some risk. But that is life. Life is risky. The only people who don’t have risk are dead people. Cars kill many more people than guns every year, but nobody is talking about banning cars for that. And tobacco kills many times more people than cars, and people aren’t talking about banning that either. Guns are the least of our worries. It is because society accepts risks that are a nature of life. If we ban cars then we can’t go on living. If we ban guns in America then i would argue the same is the case. In mexico guns are totally illegal, and that is precisely the reason there are massive army sized illegal drug cartels armed with the best guns and machineguns that not even second amendment americans can buy. People have to realize that outlawing guns only means that the good people will be disarmed because only the good people follow the laws. Once only the good people are disarmed the bad people become so much more emboldened because the only thing more powerful than having a gun is knowing that only you have one, and your prey are sitting ducks. It also promotes crime because it makes crime so much more profitable. In a second amendment society crime is not nearly as profitable because the bad guy knows there is a good chance he will be shot during his crime. Getting shot is not profitable. Brazil is another example. Close to no gun rights, but lots of bad guys have guns. It is common to get robbed at gun point in front of your house at 3pm. I thought guns were illegal? Yes, and that’s why only the bad guys have them. So however we handle this issue i would never consider punishing everyone because of the very small number of people who have severe violent mental disorders. Now with that said i have a personal experience of someone who had a dangerous mental disorder and had guns. And in fact i thought they were going to kill me, twice. All i wanted was to take their guns away. I was able to get them involuntarily committed, but that was the huge problem. In the usa the institutional insane asylum of the 20th century and all human history for those people were closed down for political reasons. So what exists now is EXTREMELY expensive, and he was only able to stay there for a week before they released him. It was a relative of mine. During that week i got the relative who was more of an authority in his life to allow me to take all his guns and lock them up. But in a short period of time that person caved in and gave them back to him. By some miracle he never committed any violent act with a gun before his death from a different reason a year later. But once that relative gave his guns back i never came never came near them again because i want to be nowhere near guns and mentally ill like that. So the first thing americans need to do is not empower the government but empower family and friends to take action. Or maybe the word is encourage. We need to keep each other in check. Why do we need to require it by law? Are we robots that only do what the coded law requires? Why can we not handle this ourselves? The. The second thing america needs to do is bring back mental institutions to house people who are that insane. When they are that insane they need life taken away and not just gun rights. Gun rights are the last thing that should be on the menu for someone that insane. They are so needy and sick and need so much help and attention. The word gun should not even be mentioned. It should be laughed at if mentioned because there are so many higher priorities. And they can be carefully monitored by professionals in the insane asylum and if ever come back around they could be considered by doctors for release. But in America we elect people that used to be in insane asylums now to congress. So I don’t listen to any proposed laws about gun control until we get the severely mentally ill population under control in the most fundamental ways.

  11. “follow the science” has never proven fruitful as a directive. We should not attempt to regulate what can not be regulated. “shall not be infringed” wasn’t a suggestion, it was a directive and we should be repealing gun control laws like the NFA, not adding to them.

  12. No I disagree with the call to create laws requiring supervision entirely. As someone who has depression I’m no danger to others or myself. I have no violent tendencies or suicidal ideations and never have. But because I’ve sought therapy and at one point medication this article is saying that I should only be able to own firearms under supervision. Trying to codify this in laws will be way overreaching and too broad of a law. You’re calling for something that is much more nuanced than any politician is capable of thinking. This article here is the kind of thing that directly leads to gun people not seeking therapy or treatment because you’re implying that they’re the problem that must be dealt with.

  13. When we were “sold” background checks, one of the things said they would catch is mental illness. It may catch the worst of the worst, but I don’t believe many people who have been involuntarily committed show up in NICS. Even if they do, there is an entire other level of people who should be denied via a NICS entry. It may be difficult to log these people because of medical privacy laws. Same with habitual drug users, especially as more drugs are becoming non-criminalized. Those felony convictions are no longer felonies, so there needs to be some way to flag those people.

    But there needs to be a way to undo these database entries too. Drug/alcohol users can become clean. Mental health can be treated. Both of these are difficult because people can relapse or fail to take their medication. But like the article stated, people will be afraid to get help if they are banned for life. Perhaps have them banned for a period of time (5 yrs??) and then apply to get their mental/drug/alcohol entries expunged. But it needs to be easy yet accountable.

  14. I agree with everything mentioned in this article. The problem is that whether a person has a mental illness or not, the people that should not have availability to firearms are going to get them one way or the other.The same thing goes for criminals. People that should not have firearms, whether it’s due to a mental illness or they are a criminal are going to be able to get a firearm one way or the other and do evil things with them. No law will ever prevent this from happening.

  15. Mental Health is a slippery slope issue. Note that the early New York City gun laws were created by a Democrat lawmaker that spend the last years of his life in a mental ward for the dangerously mentally impaired. Recent cases of a “banned mentally ill” person that purchased a firearm was able to do so because their mental illness was NOT reported. How many folks remember that California State Senator LEE, who was considered to be the prime mover for much of the current California gun laws, was convicted for smuggling illegal full auto AK-47s. His crazy defense was that he was charged with smuggling in 200 AK-47s, but he only was able to bring in 100! Does that qualify as being mentally ill???

  16. I am a retired psychiatric RN with 20 years experience working on locked psych wards. I have seen countless people that I have admitted to my ward that should never ever have access to a firearm. But how do we monitor that ? I discharge patients that we got stable on their meds but will stop taking them and become psychotic and delusional again. So that person goes and buys a firearm, nobody knows he just left a locked down psych ward. The gun store owner doesn’t know this person is unstable and a paranoid schizophrenic. In some states when applying for a conceal permit, HIPPA laws prohibit the disclosure of personal medical history. So how does society monitor and or police the mental fitness of a person to own a firearm ?

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