President Barack Obama left one seat open during his Tuesday-night State of the Union address for the victims of gun violence.
“And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing,” he said, mentioning “protecting our kids from gun violence” as one of the initiatives at the forefront of his agenda.
Obama announced new executive actions on guns last Tuesday. Those actions narrowed a loophole on background checks for gun purchases, instructed the FBI to hire 230 additional agents to process background checks, and proposed more than $500 million in funding toward mental-health treatment, among other things
But Dr. Sonali Rajan, an assistant professor of health education at Columbia University who’s studied gun violence among US youth, told Business Insider something key is missing from Obama’s actions.
She said providing funding for mental-health treatment and putting further limitations on the access to weapons are just two small pieces of the puzzle when it comes to curbing gun violence. What she’s learned from her research is that it’s imperative to be investing programs at schools and community centres that teach kids how to cope with anger and other emotions in a non-violent way.
Her 2014 study, co-authored with Dr. Kelly Ruggles of New York University, used data on 13,500 to 16,500 high-school students collected each year between 2001 and 2011 by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 3,000 teens under 18 are killed from gun violence annually, according to the Children’s Defence Fund.
The students were surveyed on whether or not they engaged in a number of behaviours considered risky, and they found that the behaviours they found that most related to gun possession were using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, as well as if they had been in a fight or were threatened in school. Gun possession was a coping method that sometimes led to violence.
“People who feel unsafe, threatened, and exposed to violence in other ways, are highly likely to want to carry a firearm,” Rajan said. “I would imagine that would transfer to adulthood as well.”
She said that though mental illness does play a large role in mass shootings, and that investing in mental-health treatment is important, most gun violence is carried out by individuals who are not considered mentally ill.
She cited this research from the Journal of the American Medical Association to back up that claim.
But while few people would disagree with the need for mental health reform, scientists who study gun violence say it won’t make much of a dent in the number of homicides and attempted homicides committed with firearms. That’s because although mass shooters are likely to be mentally ill (but not necessarily diagnosed), high-profile mass shootings represent only a small fraction of US gun violence, the vast majority of which is committed by people who are not mentally ill. In addition, most people with mental illness are not violent; they are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of shootings.
People should realise that “even though it feels that mass shootings happen all the time, they’re still extremely rare,” said Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University.
Through early December 2015, about 450 individuals died in mass shootings in the United States last year, according to Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced website that defines a mass shooting as one in which at least 4 people have been shot but not necessarily killed (http://bit.ly/1MuHpVL). Compare that with 11 208, the number of people killed in homicides committed with firearms in 2013, the most recent year for which the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has US data (http://1.usa.gov/1GEJ0TN).
“The link between guns and mental illness is a link that needs to be debunked, because at least 95% of violent acts are committed by persons without serious mental disorders,” said American Psychiatric Association President Renée Binder, MD, founding director of the psychiatry and law program and forensic fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco.
Rajan said the president’s plan in 2013 was much more comprehensive in terms of strategy. But she acknowledged that because of how politicized the issue has become, he could only include so much.
“I think right now in the context of gun control it’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides of the isle with people talking over each other ot at each other, instead of trying to understand and address this in the way we might htink of other health epidemics,” she said. “If we also address the [issue] from a young age or an earlier age, it might take the [divisive] rhetoric away and generating communities of healthier and happier youth and individuals who are able to cope in a different way.”
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