Study: Gun Control Without Addressing Mental Health Likely Will Fail

The Associated Press
Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP

An academic study issued just days ahead of the deadly shootings in Texas and Ohio that claimed 29 lives shows that tactics to enforce gun control and limit access to firearms will not succeed unless mental health is a part of the strategy to reduce mass shootings.

Logan A. Yelderman, Justin J. Joseph, Matthew P. West, and Erycha Butler co-authored the study, titled “Mass Shootings in the United States: Understanding the Importance of Mental Health and Firearm Considerations.”

“The main takeaway (specific to policy) from our research is that policy discussions about mass shooting violence should not center on only guns or mental health but instead on gun ownership and responsibility and mental health,” Yelderman, an assistant professor of psychology at Prairie View A&M University, says in an article published on the study on the PsyPost website. “Two separate policies, one being a gun ban and the other being a mental health history restriction, are not the same as an integrative policy incorporating both mental health and gun control.”

“Essentially, both mental health and firearm ownership/responsibility are key factors associated with mass shooting violence, and both need to be integrated in policy development and implementation,” Yelderman says. “To focus on one and neglect the other would be unwise.”

“A new study provides evidence that unaddressed mental health issues might increase violence in mass shootings,” the website article states. “The findings have been published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.”

PsyPost’s report also shows that in 82 percent of mass shootings the guns were purchased legally. According to the report:

Yelderman and his colleagues analyzed 102 cases of mass shooters in the United States between 1982 and 2018. They found that most shooters obtained their guns legally (82.4 percent) and mental illness was reported to some extent in slightly over half of the cases (54.9 percent). About one-fourth of the mass shooters had spent time in a mental health facility or program. The average number of victims was 22.

The researchers found that mass shooters in which a mental disorder had been mentioned but no formal diagnosis was reported tended to have the most victims, compared to those with no reported mental health history and those who had received a formal diagnosis.

The Pulse nightclub shooter, for instance, was described as bipolar and mentally unstable by his wife but had not been diagnosed with any specific condition. He killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.

“Our findings suggest that mass shooters with suspected mental health issues, yet who lacked formal diagnosis, tended to be more violent,” Yelderman says. “This potentially implies that formal contact with mental health professionals or formal awareness of mental health might provide some buffering effect on violence among mass shooters.”

“Also, shooters who had access to more weapons during the shooting tended to be more violent,” Yelderman tells PsyPost.

Yelderman did say in the interview that there were caveats on the study, including that the study did not address what leads people to become mass shooters,” the data used was gleaned from media and police reports not from information from clinicians, and the definition of a mass shooting vary from study to study.

“The study focused on seemingly random public shootings that resulted in more than three or four deaths,” the PayPost article states. “The researchers did not examine mass shootings related to gang activity and family slayings.”

“Though policy is typically a good tool to improve the welfare of Americans, sometimes improvement requires change at the individual and community levels,” Yelderman says. “Regarding mass shootings and other firearm violence, policy debates must include discussions about fundamental change in culture surrounding guns and mental health; otherwise, it is possible that policies will continue to risk failure.”

The abstract for the study states:

The purpose of this study was to examine whether mass shooters’ media-reported mental health history and firearm access related to mass shooting severity. The current analysis included a total of 102 mass shooters in the United States between 1982 and 2018 described in media reports. Negative binomial regression analysis was used to assess if a shooter’s media-reported mental health history and firearm access were related to mass shooting severity while controlling for age, race, location, weapon attainment legality, and assault rifle use. Results suggest that reported mental health histories, number of weapons brought to the scene of the crime, weapon attainment legality, the use of an assault-style weapon, and location were significantly related to mass shooting severity. Understanding the relationships between gun access, mental health, and mass shooting severity might provide a better foundation for policy development aimed at minimizing mass shootings. Unaddressed mental health issues might increase violence; therefore, reducing mental health stigma might enable more individuals to seek formal evaluations, which could assist violence prevention efforts. Similarly, increased firearm responsibility and safety, whether at the social or legal level, might reduce violence and prevent casualties of mass shootings. 

“Developing policy to address gun violence should not be based on mass shootings alone, as they make up for a very small percentage of gun violence,” Yelderman says. “Instead, these policies should consider firearm violence of all kinds, including both mass shootings and non-mass shootings.”

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