Are Guns in the Hands of the Mentally Ill Really the Problem?

In an effort to appear pro-active in pushing for stronger gun control legislation, some opponents to stricter gun laws, as well as some political leaders, have turned the spotlight on mental illness as a primary concern surrounding mass shootings. But is this focus misplaced?

On April 20, 1999, as news stations across the country broke through regularly scheduled programs, shots continued to ring out at Columbine High School in Colorado. Still reeling from the devastating consequences of this mass shooting, exactly one month later, the echo of gunfire was heard, this time at Heritage High School in Georgia.

Since this time, the violence has continued in what appears to be a cancer spreading across the United States, the effects of which have gun control advocates and civil rights advocates at odds with each other. As legislators struggle to find a cure to this malevolent disease, managing gun control laws in relation to individuals suffering from mental illness has quickly becoming a focal point of the debate.

Over a decade after the Columbine shooting, Americans were faced with the loss of more lives in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. The tragedy resulted in the deaths of 32 students and faculty members along with 17 non-lethal injuries. Gun violence would continue through the years with little progress made in controlling this vicious cycle, until America was once again slammed in the face with another mass shooting on a school campus. This was not just any school, but an elementary school. On December 14, 2012, the quiet town of Newton, Connecticut would lose 20 children and six adults in what some speculate as an avoidable tragedy.

The general rhetoric of the NRA and other political supporters holding the line against stricter gun legislation lobby that the real issue is keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Yet, there is evidence that suggests this line of thought is inaccurate. Studies reveal that individuals with severe mental illnesses, a small percentage in overall comparison, perpetrate approximately one in 20 violent crimes.

It is not as though American political leaders have never passed legislation in an attempt to control the availability of guns to the mentally ill. Congress passed the Gun Control Act in 1968, making it illegal for individuals that had been committed, involuntarily, to a mental hospital or that had been determined mentally “defective” (a term commonly used during that time) to purchase a gun.

Later, legislation via the 1994 Brady Violence Prevention Act, extended the 1968 Gun Control Act exclusionary clauses regarding mental illness (along with initially the same verbiage), and added provisions to include a waiting period to purchase a handgun in hope of better ensuring proper background checks of potential buyers.

The insinuation that placing stronger reporting mandates on mental health clinicians alone will drastically reduce the number of violent acts committed using a gun, is simply unsubstantiated. Also, the totality of legislation, such as the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, focuses on past, current, and future individuals seeking mental health services. The law mandates mental health professionals to report patients that may potentially harm others as well as themselves.

The outcome of such action could prove to be less of a deterrent to gun violence and more harmful to individuals with mental illnesses. It has the potential of leading to wrongful identification of potentially violent patients and a systematic response whereby individuals who need mental health services withdraw from treatment or forego treatment out of fear of being reported as mentally unstable. Further, it simply violates doctor-patient’s confidentiality as well as the overall privacy of patients.

Many gun rights advocates and political leaders often quote the Second Amendment to the Constitution as evidence supporting the right to bear arms. Yet, there seems to be little concern by the same individuals regarding breaching patient confidentiality also afforded to individuals, including psychiatric patients, provided under the protection of the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Still, the push for more stringent gun control legislation focusing on individuals with mental health illnesses is one that is supported by both advocates of gun rights and gun control.

As the battle continues to ensue over protecting the rights of gun owners and protecting the health and safety of innocent citizens, there is little doubt that something must be done to reduce the overwhelming statistics relating to gun violence. Most professionals within the mental health field support continued efforts to effectively reduce the risks of gun violence at the hands of a severely mentally ill individual. It is through this support that the mental health community believes more doors will open providing greater opportunities in the funding and treatment of individuals suffering from many forms of mental illness.


Fazel S, & Grann M (2006). The population impact of severe mental illness on violent crime. The American journal of psychiatry, 163 (8), 1397-403 PMID: 16877653

Friedman, R (17 December, 2012). In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness. The New York Times.

Swanson J (2013). Mental illness and new gun law reforms: the promise and peril of crisis-driven policy. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 309 (12), 1233-4 PMID: 23392291

Webster, D. and Vernick, J. (2013). Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. ISBN 10: 1-4214-1110-5.

Image via Sandra Matic / Shutterstock.

Brenda Walker, MA

Brenda Walker, MA, holds a Master of Arts Degree in Health Care Administration from Ashford University, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Health Care Management from Anthem College, and an Associates in Applied Science, priority focus in Limited Scope X-Ray. She had over 10 years of experience and a member of the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors. Her primary focus, recently, has been on the continued roll-out of the ACA, Medicare, and Strategic Planning and Implementation for small and private health care entities.
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