People have been taking entirely the wrong message from mass shootings like the one at Newtown, Connecticut, a recent study finds. Newtown — and now the shooting of two New York City Police officers — have led them to fear violence from the mentally ill and believe that better psychiatric evaluations can prevent such tragedies, and that gun control can help.
It's what prompted pundit Ann Coulter to say, “Guns don't kill people. The mentally ill do.” The reality is that you're much more likely to be shot by a friend or relative.
Yet all of these ideas are misguided, according to Jonathan Metzl, the study's lead author, “Gun discourse after mass shootings often perpetuates the fear that ‘some crazy person is going to come shoot me.’ But if you look at the research, it's not the ‘crazy’ person you have to fear.”
The mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely to be the victims of violent crime than to be the perpetrators.
Up to 85 percent of all shootings occur within a person's social network. Even in New York City, police data show that people are more likely to die in a plane crash, drown in a bathtub or perish in an earthquake than be murdered by a crazed stranger. Over 90 percent of that city's 2013 murder victims knew their attacker.
It's actually the perception that the mentally ill are violent that may be the furthest from reality. The mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely to be the victims of violent crime than to be their perpetrators. According to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were by people diagnosed with mental illness.
But they all involved guns.
There's also no evidence that mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, can prevent the next Newtown through psychiatric evaluations.
As Metzl's review declares, “Even the overwhelming majority of psychiatric patients who fit the profile of recent U.S. mass shooters — gun-owning, angry, paranoid white men — do not commit crimes.”
As tragic as attacks like that in Newtown are, they are still isolated incidents compared to the 32,000 gun deaths that occur yearly in the U.S., but they tend to overshadow the main issue: “We should set our attention and gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime,” Metzl writes.
Gun ownership is a contentious issue that has been wrapped in race and politics for decades. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers and other Black Power groups demanded broader gun rights as a necessity to protect themselves from government tyranny. Congress did not agree and restricted gun rights, passing the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Metzl notes that today the Tea Party makes similar arguments about the necessity of gun ownership, arguments that so far have prevented Congress from passing new gun restrictions.
Jonathan M. Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry, and the Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His study, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” appears in the American Journal of Public Health and is freely accessible.