Spurious bid to link mental illness to gun violence

2 minute read

The campaign to shift the concern around gun violence onto the mentally ill is misguided, researchers argue


In an extension of the claim that “guns don’t kill  – people do”, the gun lobby is seeking tighter checks on people with mental illness to identify possible risks

Twenty years after the Port Arthur massacre and Australia’s adoption of tighter controls of firearms, to a paper published online in the Medical Journal of Australia says the campaign to shift concern onto the mentally ill is misguided.

The authors, led by Dr Michael Dudley of UNSW’s School of Psychiatry, cite studies showing most violent individuals do not have mental illness and the vast majority of individuals with mental illness are not violent.

“They are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators of violence,” they write.

“Media portrayals of violence by people with mental illness reinforces public perception of their dangerousness, further stigmatising and endangering them. Almost half those who die at the hands of US police have some kind of disability.”

The paper says there is no research clearly verifying that mass killers are psychotic or even suffering from severe mental illness. A recent analysis of US mass shootings reported that prior concerns about the shooters’ mental health had been raised in just 11% of cases.

Of 130 victims of mass gun killings in Australian and New Zealand between 1987 and 2015, 78% were slain by a shooter with no known history of mental illness; 88% by someone with no history of violent crime; and 56% by someone with legal possession of firearms.

In the case of Port Arthur shooter Martin Bryant, four forensic psychiatrists found he was not suffering from a mental illness but a personality disorder with limited intellectual and empathic capacities.

“Psychiatrists are no better than laypeople or chance” at predicting risk of violence, the paper says.

“The campaign to deflect social concern over firearms availability into a debate about whether people with mental illness histories should access such weapons should be exposed as a calculated appeal to prejudice.”

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