Mental Health and Gun Violence

Mental illness is a strong risk factor for suicide. It’s not a strong risk factor for homicide.

Most violence in society is caused by other things.

Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem.

What Do We Actually Know About the Relationship Between Mental Illness and Mass Shootings? – Mother Jones

Content note: ableism, suicide, mass shootings, police violence

Demonizing autistic & mentally ill folks in the wake of shootings demonstrates a lack (or refusal) of systems thinking. This just feeds the guns, fear, & resentment feedback loops. It scapegoats the powerless instead of confronting structural problems.

The notion that autistic people categorically lack empathy is a myth, a pernicious and dangerous myth uncritically and thoughtlessly encouraged by politicians trying to deflect the public health crisis of gun violence onto some of the most marginalized people in society. It is not autistic people who lack empathy. “Empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination.

Autistic and mentally ill people are not the population to be wary of.

Autism and mental illness aren’t the danger. Gun proliferation stoked by bigotry is the danger. White supremacy and its narratives of entitlement and resentment are the danger. Toxic masculinity is the danger. Structural sexism, racism, and ableism are the danger.

The radicalised Republican Party, with its white Christian nationalist vision for the US and increasing penchant for political violence like that seen on 6 January 2021, is the problem.

Until the American people somehow wrest control of this country from the authoritarian party of white supremacist patriarchy and Christian theocracy, it is unlikely that we will make progress addressing gun violence.

The Christian Right won’t stop mass shootings in the US | openDemocracy

You erode equal protection for disabled & neurodivergent people when you make us the targets instead of the real threats. The one square inch of common ground on gun issues is throwing neurodivergent and disabled people under the bus. There is bipartisan support to pathologize, criminalize, incarcerate, harass, and abuse us.

Y’all incite violence against us and threaten our freedom.


Policy solutions should target the most common and accurate predictors of gun violence, such as:

  • a history of violent behavior, including history of domestic violence
  • a history of violent threats
  • history of participation in violent organizations or hate groups.
ASAN Statement on Gun Violence Prevention Following Parkland Mass Shooting – Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Research shows that there is no direct link between gun violence (excluding suicide) and mental health. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds are more likely to be the victims of gun violence. People with disabilities in general are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime, such as robbery or sexual assault. The police are also more likely to use deadly force against people with disabilities.

Nonetheless, some policymakers and media reports continue to scapegoat people with mental health disabilities for mass shootings and other forms of gun-related violence, even though these crimes are mostly committed by people without disabilities.

This rhetoric can lead to laws and government actions that discriminate against people with disabilities. In 2016, the Social Security Administration passed a rule that would have stopped any Social Security recipient who had a mental disability and needed help managing their money from owning a gun. Congress later passed a law that canceled this rule. Other bills have tried to take away the rights of people with mental health disabilities to make decisions about mental health treatment.

ASAN wants to change the conversation that we, as a society, have about gun violence and people with mental health disabilities. Misinformation and stereotypes hurt some of the most marginalized people in our society. We can do better.

The evidence is clear: the overwhelming majority of gun violence is committed by people without disabilities. Public opinion, and public policy, must catch up with reality. Misinformation on this issue contributes to discrimination that has a real and negative impact on people’s lives. When lawmakers make policy based on fear and prejudice, the results endanger our civil rights and do nothing to make our communities safer. It’s time for us all to step up, challenge myths and misinformation, and demand real solutions.

Make Real Change On Gun Violence: Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Health Disabilities – Autistic Self Advocacy Network
  • People with mental health disabilities are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.
  • People with mental health disabilities are also no more likely to be involved in gun violence (excluding suicide) than anyone else.
  • In fact, most studies show that people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be the victims than the assailants.
  • People with mental health disabilities are even more likely to experience police violence.
  • Despite all this, most people still believe people with mental health disabilities are violent.
Make Real Change On Gun Violence: Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Health Disabilities – Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Most notably, there is the myth of the autistic shooter—after reports that the gunman who killed twenty-six people, including twenty children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School was on the spectrum, calls to the Autism Speaks hotline jumped 130 percent. As Peter Bell, an executive vice president at the organization, told Time magazine, people wanted “to put the blame squarely on the fact that the shooter may have had autism.” Bell added that the “rush to put a label on the situation has caused significant harm already.”

In reality, there is no evidence to indicate a connection between autism and violent behavior. This harmful stereotype is fueled solely by speculation and misunderstanding. Though we may never fully comprehend the twisted motivations behind mass shooters, autism alone is never the cause.

While these are all extreme examples, what they make clear is that many people have no idea how autism works…

We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation

The assertion that severe mental illnesses cause gun violence, specifically mass shootings, is not helpful and not accurate, but it is harmful. It is a dangerous idea. And we hear it from the media and our leaders all the time. Worse, no one ever seems to ask people with mental health disabilities what they think. So we asked. And here’s what they said.

VIDEO: People With Mental Health Disabilities Shut Down Dangerous Ideas About Gun Violence – Rooted in Rights

However: there is no factual link between mental illness and violence against others. In fact, people with mental health disorders are more likely to be victims of a violent crime (up to 10 times more likely than the general population) than the perpetrators. A 2011 meta analysis found that to prevent one homicide of a person unknown to the perpetrator, 35,000 patients with schizophrenia judged to be at high risk of violence would need to be detained. Similarly, few U.S. mass shootings have been committed by people who were “mentally ill;” there is a much stronger correlation with other issues, like domestic violence. Finally, people with mental illness are much more likely to hurt themselves than others. Two-thirds of gun deaths in this country are suicides, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Misleading statements about mental health and violence have very real consequences. They contribute to the stigma towards psychiatric patients, which can, in turn, lead to fewer people seeking the treatment they, need. They also engender discrimination: in 2013, a Kaiser Health pollfound that 47% of Americans were “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable living next door to someone with a serious mental illness, and 41% felt the same about working with someone with serious mental health issues.

The Dangers of Linking Gun Violence and Mental Illness | Time

Mentally ill people are not inherently more violent than anybody else. Issues like substance abuse and situational factors can increase violent behavior, but the same is true of people without mental-health conditions. Evidence suggests mentally ill people are actually less likely to kill someone with a firearm, overall, than their sane counterparts.

But when they do, they’re usually killing themselves. This cuts to the crux of the problem with the way we talk about guns and mental health: Rather than taking on the very real and horrific toll of suicide in the United States, pundits and members of the public focus on the very tiny fraction of mentally ill people who commit heinous crimes and extrapolate wild conclusions.

It’s undeniable that the United States needs to take meaningful steps to prevent gun deaths. Rampage killings capture the bulk of the attention, but the use of guns in intimate-partner violence, unrelated homicides, and suicides should be cause for grave concern. While Congress continues to limit the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence thanks to the Dickey Amendment, there is enough information from other sources to understand that the guns/mental health narrative advanced in the media in the wake of mass shootings is wrong, stigmatizing, and ultimately unhelpful.

To meaningfully address gun violence, we need to reduce the number of weapons in circulation overall, and cut down on weapons sales to people likely to harm themselves or others. The trinity of universal background checks backed by better databases, waiting periods, and gun-storage laws could radically reduce gun violence in the United States. These are basic lifesaving measures akin to requiring people to wear seatbelts, and they’re not dependent on broadly stigmatizing 20 percent of the population.

Rather than demonizing mentally ill people for mass shootings, the United States should be talking about the real risk with guns and mental health: That it’s too easy for suicidal people to obtain guns to shoot themselves, leading to nearly 22,00 preventable deaths every year. Until the conversation about gun violence can be reframed onto actual, rather than mythological, risks, needless gun deaths will continue.

Don’t Blame the Mentally Ill. Blame the Guns. | The Nation

While this bill frames itself as an attempt to prevent gun violence, in reality, this legislation does not address gun violence at all. Instead, it yet again scapegoats people with mental health disabilities. It is impossible to address the issue of gun violence when these conversations come at the cost of the civil rights of the 1 in 5 Americans with mental health disabilities.

The RESPONSE Act, in fact, is not a meaningful response to gun violence at all. It focuses almost solely on expanding and funding coercive mental health programs, while failing to address virtually any factors that actually contribute to gun violence. The legislation instead focuses on making it easier to surveil and institutionalize people with mental health disabilities who are deemed a “threat” to others. The bill proposes funding for forced treatment of people with mental health disabilities, and sets the groundwork for expanded “threat assessments” in schools.” Threat assessments” are inherently discriminatory attempts to identify students seen as at “potential risk” of committing gun violence and use “behavioral intervention teams” to continually discipline and surveil these students. These practices have already been shown to marginalize students of color and students with disabilities, forcing students out of school and further contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. None of these proposals will impact gun violence; they will only cost people with disabilities our civil rights.

The evidence is clear: there is no relationship between mental health disability and gun violence. By conflating these issues, the Senate is distracting from efforts to create real change on gun safety. ASAN calls on our allies in Congress to hold the line, educate their colleagues about how this legislation harms people with mental health disabilities, and ensure this bill never moves forward. The time has come for our elected officials to stop scapegoating the disability community and work towards real change to end gun violence.

ASAN Opposes the RESPONSE Act – Autistic Self Advocacy Network

In all of his work, Swanson has found one recurring factor: past violence remains the single biggest predictor of future violence. “Any history of violent behavior is a much stronger predictor of future violence than mental-health diagnosis,” he told me. If Swanson had his way, gun prohibitions wouldn’t be based on mental health, but on records of violent behavior-not just felonies, but also including minor disputes. “There are lots of people out there carrying guns around who have high levels of trait anger-the type who smash and break things,” he said. “I believe they shouldn’t have guns. That’s what’s behind the idea of restricting firearms with people with misdemeanor violent-crime convictions or temporary domestic-violence restraining orders, or even multiple D.U.I.s.”

Is There A Link Between Mental Health and Gun Violence? | The New Yorker

Like the majority of Americans, we believe that the current epidemic of mass gun violence is unacceptable and must be addressed through effective gun policy. Policy solutions should target the most common and accurate predictors of gun violence, such as: a history of violent behavior, including history of domestic violence; a history of violent threats; and a history of participation in violent organizations or hate groups. We support efforts to ensure that such behavior is included in the databases used for background checks, and to expand the use of background checks at the point of sale. Gun safety experts have identified a number of additional common-sense steps lawmakers can take to reduce gun violence-and these recommendations are supported by the vast majority of Americans. We urge Congress to act. We should not live in a society where it is as easy to buy a weapon of war as it is to buy groceries.

However, ASAN opposes false solutions based on harmful myths about violence and people with disabilities, including those of us with mental health disabilities. An overwhelming number of research studies have found that people with mental health disabilities are no more likely to commit violent acts than anyone else. In fact, we are much more likely to be the victims of a violent crime than the perpetrators. (ASAN has prepared a summary of the research on this topic available here.)

Using legislation to take rights away from people with disabilities is a common tactic used by legislators who want to appear as if they have taken decisive action, rather than actually take the steps necessary to solve a particular problem. We cannot afford to reach for such shallow and baseless “quick fix” solutions to a problem that, if left unaddressed, will lead to the loss of hundreds of innocent lives a year. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network urges Congress to take real action to prevent gun violence and mass shootings by targeting proven risk factors.

ASAN Statement on Gun Violence Prevention Following Parkland Mass Shooting – Autistic Self Advocacy Network
The Uniquely American Problem of Gun Violence