Trump and Republicans are blaming mental health for America's gun problem after the Florida school shooting -- here's why they're wrong

sheriff.orgA police mugshot of Nikolas Cruz.
  • President Donald Trump and other politicians have spoken about the need to address mental health in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting that left 17 dead.
  • But experts say that mental illness alone is not to blame for gun violence.
  • If a number of major mental illnesses were cured, gun violence would only go down by 4% in the US.
  • Researchers say that histories of domestic violence, anger, and disdain for women are often strong predictors of future gun violence.
  • Nine out of the 10 perpetrators of the most violent shootings in America had histories of abusing women.

In the wake of another mass shooting, politicians have predictably started pointing to mental health as the culprit.

Several Republican politicians and government officials including President Donald Trump have suggested that mental illness was to blame for the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday that left 17 people dead – but researchers say evidence suggests there is no traceable link between mental illness and gun violence, and that a much more widespread issue is to blame.

Trump pointed to 19-year-old suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz’s “erratic” past in condemning America’s most recent mass shooting.

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behaviour,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “Neighbours and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

The president was joined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and others.

“This individual appears to have significant issues with mental illness. We’ll be asking, were there signs of mental illness? Could we have stepped in beforehand?” Cruz said on “Fox & Friends.”

Trump made similar statements in the aftermath of the shooting in a Texas church in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs last year. Despite such assertions, though, Trump last year revoked mandated background checks for people with mental health issues trying to buy guns.

But according to experts, there is no generally applicable causal link between mental illness and mass shootings.

As many as one in five US adults suffer from some sort of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Those rates are relatively on-par with the rest of the world, yet Americans are ten times more likely to die at the barrel of a gun than people in other rich countries.

Duke University professor and sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, who specialises in studying the link between violence and mental illness, told Vox that even if everyone who suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression in the US were cured overnight, violent crime in the US would only fall by around 4%.

“People with mental illness are people, and the vast majority aren’t any more of a risk than anyone else,” Swanson said.

Violence, anger, and misogyny

Forensic psychiatrist Liza Gold, who teaches psychiatry at Georgetown and edited the book ““Gun Violence and Mental Illness”, said it’s tough to generalize about the perpetrators of mass shootings because they’re still relatively rare. But she said based on anecdotal evidence, it doesn’t seem like perpetrators of mass violence are more likely to have mental health problems than anyone else.

A more consistent feature of the shooters, Gold says, is that they tend to have “risk factors for perpetrating violent behaviour” – that is, a history with law enforcement or violence, and especially domestic violence.

The overarching pattern many researchers have observed is that gun violence takes places when angry men with a history of violence gain easy access to firearms.

Violence against women is also a major point of commonality between mass shooters. Nine of the shooters on this list of the top 10 most deadly mass shootings in modern America committed violence against women, threatened violence against women, or disparaged women.

Elliot RodgersYouTubeSanta Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger.

Many recent mass shooters, including Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, Texas shooter Devin Patrick Kelley, 2014 Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, and others had histories of abusing women or feeling spurned by women in their love lives.

In Parkland, Cruz had reportedly also been a lonely, isolated young man, and had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas after a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. He also had a history of violent behaviour on social media.

Gold says these disturbing yet telling patterns illustrate why politicians need to look at deeper problems than just mental illness.

“To simply say ‘Oh, it’s mental illness’ and then walk away, not only is it wrong, but it leaves us as a society feeling stuck and overwhelmed and frustrated,” Gold said.

She pointed out that the US isn’t the only place with angry, impulsive people on the loose, yet “we are the only developed country in the world where this happens on a regular basis.”

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