Don’t blame gun violence on mental illness

By Sophie Allen

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Most people have heard of the movie “Psycho,” regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films and source of the infamous shower scene. Spoiler alert: murderer and motel proprietor Norman Bates has an alternate personality, his mother, who has “taken hold of his mind.” Bates, one of the most famous characters with mental illness in cinema, is based on real-life killer Ed Gein (also, loosely, the inspiration for Leatherface of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Dr. Hannibal Lecter of “The Silence of the Lambs”).

Mental illness is a common theme in popular culture, only growing in scope as time passes. It is a common explanation for misconduct in positions of power, such as the widespread claim that President Donald Trump suffers from anything from dementia to narcissism. That said, mental illness is also often used as an explanation for mass shootings; Trump blamed the recent Texas massacre on it, calling the shooter a “deranged individual.” He isn’t the only one. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan claims “diagnoses of mental illness” are usually behind mass shootings. According to MentalHealth.gov, though, only three to five percent of violent acts can be blamed on those living with serious mental illness.

It can be almost too easy to place blame on people with mental illness. Despite portrayals of that population as either terrifying monsters or comic relief, more people live with mental illness than just those extremes. A quarter of people between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness, which means a quarter of your friends, classmates and colleagues. That’s a significant chunk of students here at the University of Massachusetts. Maybe even an opinion columnist for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. There is nothing wrong with this. There is, however, something very wrong with using people with mental illness as a scapegoat.

People with mental illness are not props. They are not a neon sign at which Congress can point their fingers when they need to think of another excuse for why they haven’t placed stricter regulations on gun sales. It’s not as though there’s no data to back up this claim: Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University, has found through a database of mass shooters that 65 percent of the perpetrators show no signs of serious mental illness.

It is clear, then, that something else is fueling the continuous rise of mass shootings in the United States. I might be out of line saying this, but I think it might be the guns. No, hear me out: American gun-related deaths cannot be easily explained by mental illness. Even when other factors are investigated, it all comes back to guns.

“But, you liberal snowflake,” you might say to me, “guns don’t kill people. People kill people!” That simply isn’t true. You need a gun to carry out a mass shooting. People simply do not walk into a crowded movie theater, or a hotel or a church, and strangle people one by one with their bare hands. Yes, someone could drive a truck into a crowd and kill people, but truck control isn’t really an issue. Before someone can purchase and get behind the wheel of a truck, they usually have to get their permit, then their license, which takes more paperwork than buying a gun.

Many Americans are upset by the prospect of their Second Amendment rights being taken away through stricter gun control legislation, but here’s something else to consider: the framers of the Constitution, the founding fathers of this nation, didn’t have automatic weapons. One of the most famous shootings of the pre-Revolutionary period, the Boston Massacre, killed only five people. There is no doubt in my mind that the founders would have been shocked and appalled by how easy it is to now injure hundreds of people in one fell swoop.

I won’t pretend to know exactly how to fix the issue of gun violence. But one thing is certain: This phenomenon, which is only worsening, cannot be blamed on people with mental illnesses.

Sophie Allen is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]