The Truth About Mental Illness and Gun Violence


This past Wednesday, another name was added to the ever-growing list of school shooting sites: Parkland, Florida. Nineteen year old Nikolas Cruz opened fire at his former high school, which he had been expelled from, with an AR-15 rifle, killing 17 and wounding 15 in what is now the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook.

In the wake of the tragedy, much of the conversation around it has been about mental illness. In a statement echoed by many, President Trump referred to Cruz as “mentally unstable.” Mental illness is still poorly understood by experts, but it’s often attributed to acts of senseless violence. As a result, many people are blaming the shooting on “poor mental health treatment.”

Most people who make these claims, however, are misinformed on the issue. While poor mental health treatment is a serious problem, it does not significantly contribute toward gun violence rates.

Only 3-5% of violent crime is attributed to a serious mental illness and most ideas of what mental illness is like are inaccurate. For instance, people with schizophrenia, who are often depicted on crime shows as disturbed individuals doing terrible things because they hear voices telling them to, are usually not nearly as violent as their portrayals would suggest. Even in severe cases, they are often more dangerous to themselves than to others. And psychopaths and sociopaths, who are generally thought of as cold, remorseless killers, rarely turn violent, even though their condition often drives them to erratic or ruthless behavior.

Most of the myths and horror stories about mental illness are a result of a lack of understanding, often brought on by social stigma. Terms such as “psycho” and “bipolar” are carelessly misused in everyday conversations so often that many people don’t even really know what the terms mean. Not only is mental illness heavily stigmatized, it is also frequently wrongly attributed to violent crimes.

Often, when something terrible happens, people want an explanation as to why it happened. The idea of the perpetrator of a terrible crime being mentally ill is usually an acceptable enough explanation for most of the public. After the Las Vegas shooting, for instance, several headlines ran about investigations into shooter Stephen Paddock’s motive for killing. But despite all the information gathered about him and about his life, we still can’t truly say we know why he did it.

People often want to know why something like this can happen, but the truth is that sometimes, there is no understandable answer to that. Even the most experienced experts can’t completely explain human action. We’ll probably never know what was really going on in Cruz’s head or why anyone would do something like this.

But what matters here isn’t why it happened; what matters is that a troubled 19-year old was able to acquire a powerful weapon and use it to kill has happened with increasing frequency in the past decade. We ought to wonder how he was able to do these things and try to figure out what we can do to try to stop it from happening again. It’s the “how” questions that are more useful here than the “why” questions. Wondering why shootings happen will probably get us nowhere here, but by looking at what was done and how it was done, we can discover ways to prevent it from happening again.

People like to point out that gun regulations won’t stop mass shootings and they’re most likely correct, but we can make these tragedies less likely to occur. America’s mass shooting problem probably can’t be cured, but it can be remedied. I know it’s a contentious issue, but if nothing is done, more lives will be lost. I know people are wary of having their second amendment rights restricted, but if you, like me, have ever owned or used a gun before, I implore you, for the sake of future gun violence victims, to think of how powerful a firearm is and of how much damage it can do when in the wrong hands. Maybe we can’t stop gun violence completely, but by carefully regulating the firearm industry, we can save lives.