Guns and mental health: Are shootings in the US a psychological problem?
Recent attacks in the U.S. have once again returned the issue of access to guns in the country. Metro speaks with experts to learn more about the problem.
Is gun violence a result of lax gun laws, or a mental health crisis? That's what the nation is debating after a deadly mass shooting at a Baptist church in Texas, in which 26 people lost their lives.
After the Nov. 5 massacre, President Donald Trump declared that gun ownership was not a factor and pointed to the mental health of the shooter.
“We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn’t a guns situation… We could go into it but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. Fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was, it would have been much worse,” he stated.
Trump added: “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very sad event…”
Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old man wearing all-black tactical gear and a mask, carried out the attack using a semiautomatic weapon for which he did not have a permit.
Access to weapons keeps being a point of controversy and debate in the U.S. Each year around 30 thousand people die in the country shot by firearms. That is 3.9 per hour. According to a survey conducted by the U.S.-based think tank Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans claim “personal defense” as the main reason to have weapons.
Experts in the field believe that the main reason for these shootings is easy access to firearms.
“Easy access to guns and very limited record keeping or barriers to gun ownership do play a role in the kinds of shootings we have seen,” Robert Spitzer, professor of crime, law and policy and gun control at the State University of New York at Cortland, told Metro.
The barriers are in conflict with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the right of Americans to own weapons. And while Spitzer says that greater control over access to weapons does not guarantee that more attacks will not occur, it could reduce the deadly consequences.
“In some cases, the perpetrators have significant mental illness. But around 95 percent of those with mental illness are not dangerous to others, so it's easy to exaggerate impact,” he added.
Spitzer said that despite changes that can be made at the state level, national policies will not change.
“The national government right now is firmly in the hands of the pro-NRA party, which endorsed Trump early last year. And the Republican party is very, very conservative these days, which coincides with the far right leanings of the gun lobby. That hold on the majority party strangles the prospects of reform,” Spitzer concluded.
Metro spoke with Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence Attorney Hannah Shearer about the U.S. epidemic of gun violence.
Q: What part do gun access laws play in the latest shootings in the U.S.?
– The U.S. is experiencing a gun violence crisis. Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed by a gun than people in other developed nations. It's apparent that America's weak gun laws have contributed to higher rates of violence because other countries do not experience the same number of large-scale gun massacres.
Q: Could these events be prevented?
– People shouldn't have to fear being shot and killed when they're going to church or attending a music festival. The example of other countries, where people don't live with this same type of fear, shows that tougher laws can prevent both gun massacres and everyday shootings. On the state level in the U.S., there is a clear correlation between stronger gun laws and lower rates of gun violence, as experts from my organization have observed in our annual Gun Law Scorecard. It is time for U.S. lawmakers to step up and support evidence-based solutions, like universal background checks, instead of treating gun massacres as inevitable.
Q: How mental illness is related to this attacks
– The U.S. has similar rates of mental illness to other developed countries, yet we experience far more firearm attacks. It's not an answer to say that we simply need to treat mental illness, because that only treats part of the problem. We also need to improve our gun laws to make sure that people who are in a mental health crisis cannot assemble arsenals of deadly weapons so quickly and easily.
Q: But is it a problem of public health, as Trump suggests
– It is a public health crisis, but guns are the key piece of the crisis. Many proponents of relaxing gun laws in the U.S. say that if people intent on harming others can't use a firearm to carry out an attack, they'd use a truck or some other destructive weapon. Well, after deadly truck attack in New York, the city directed resources to putting protective concrete barriers around its bike lanes, as cities in Europe have done with bollards to try to protect people from that type of attack. Governments are supposed to take action to protect the public from violence, and firearm violence should be no different from any other.
Q: Why, despite this attacks, the law doesn’t change in the U.S.
– The U.S. has not improved its federal firearm laws because the corporate gun lobby has tried to make gun safety an off-limits subject for legislators. The gun lobby wants to perpetuate a narrative that gun violence is normal and can't be prevented. But the reality is that violence can be prevented, and over 90 percent of Americans support simple preventive policies like universal background checks. Hopefully, U.S. lawmakers will find the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and enact laws the majority of Americans are demanding.
Q: What to expect in the future?
– Mass shootings in the U.S. are increasing in frequency and death tolls from these horrific events are rising. Since the Las Vegas shooting, 35 other mass shootings have occurred where 4 or more victims were shot. We shouldn't have to lose innocent lives to start the conversation about preventing gun violence, but we hope that the conversation that's been started will lead to progress in the form of better gun policies.