What America actually thinks about gun control and mental illness

“This presumes that mental illnesses are intrinsically violent, or inherently cause individuals who are suffering from them to be violent, which is simply not supported by the facts.”


(Maryland GovPics/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

By Isobel McCue, Collegian Columnist

If you Google “gun control America,” the results are immediately fraught with divisive language, pitting broadly grouped categories of pro-gun conservatives and anti-gun liberals against each other. In the media, these categories are often presented as mutually exclusive and perpetually in categorical opposition. It is vital to examine, however, the potential differences between the reality of American public opinion and the media’s interpretation and portrayal of that consensus.

A national public opinion survey collected data from non-gun owners, gun owners and non-gun owners with guns in their household, yielding results that differ vastly from the common narrative. The survey reported that support for policies consisting of stricter background checks and oversight of gun dealers was high for both gun owners and non-gun owners. And not only was support high for both “sides,” but most policies received support from gun owner and non-gun owners at nearly the same percentage. For instance, a policy requiring a background check system for all gun sales to ensure prohibited persons are not able to purchase a gun received 89.9 percent support from non-gun owners and 84.3 percent support from gun owners. Even the policies which drew the starkest differences between gun owners and non-gun owners, such as the banning of certain “assault-style” weapons — which 77 percent of non-gun owners and 46 percent of gun-owners — failed to be as drastic as the news and media purport them to be.

Quite a few policies on the survey included restrictions based upon mental illness, many of which were supported by a majority of gun-owners and non-gun owners alike. These stats reveal another fundamental issue surrounding the topic of gun control about media representation and also, in this instance, public opinion in America.

Whenever another devastating shooting occurs, politicians and the media typically follow up with assigning the culpability to “mental illness.” This view is seriously flawed, and in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, outlets have begun to shift further away from this erroneous assumption. Mental illness has become the scapegoat of the school shooting epidemic, though many issues arise with assigning blame to such a complex and broad factor. On a foundational level, it is reasonably ambiguous as to what “mental illness” refers to when it is used as a reason for a shooting. Mental illness is an umbrella term for a wide variety of health conditions that alter a person’s behavior, emotions and thoughts. There are many different mental illnesses, ranging from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder to eating disorders, but no one is assuming that the majority of school shooters are suffering from anorexia. The presumption is that “mental illness” refers to more flashy and far more rare psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.

By offering mental illness as a sufficient explanation for the causation of such incredibly violent incidents, this presumes that mental illnesses are intrinsically violent, or inherently cause individuals who are suffering from them to be violent, which is simply not supported by the facts.

The risk among individuals who have mental illness for potential violence is incredibly small, and the majority of those who are violent are not suffering from mental illness. Actually, mentally ill people are far more at risk of being the victim of violence, and not the perpetrator. More likely predictors of violence include being young and male, and abusing alcohol or drugs. But no one automatically assumes an individual would be a school shooter from these factors alone, or that they would be the cause for violence.

In addition, these assertions stigmatize mental illness, a way of sectioning off those who suffer from these types of disorders as an ambiguous and frightful “them” category, then framing the argument in an antagonistic opposition to “us.” The fact of the matter is simply not so exclusionary. Nearly one in five Americans suffers from a mental illness each year, with one in 24 Americans having a serious mental illness. Disorders such as anxiety affect nearly 20 percent of the population every year, with depression being the leading cause for disability among individuals ages 15 to 44.

The truth is, 450 million people around the world live with mental illnesses, representing an incredibly wide range of disorders and severities; blaming mass shootings on such a niche group of individuals severely stigmatizes the idea of mental illness. Placing such fear onto an already difficult topic makes it more difficult for those to cope with illness, and for those suffering without knowledge to get the help they deserve.

Just as it is vital to be keenly aware of how media can distort the reality of public opinion, it is also key to acknowledge how false or exaggerated information can be cyclically perpetuated, stagnating an issue in a particular discourse. Sometimes what is presented through the news or politicians is a conventional explanation, based upon widespread, incorrect assumptions. It is often necessary to step back and remove an issue from its troubling discourse in order to see a more truthful and comprehensive view. Looking to mental illness as the default explanation for school shootings is not only fundamentally false, but detrimental to society and has halted progress on the topic of gun control. The assumption that the gun control debate is a war fought between two uncompromising sides is also incredibly misleading, preventing potential progress in gun control legislation. It is time to start digging into these misperceptions if we want to make any headway on this issue.

Isobel McCue is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]