Mental illness is not the cause of gun violence

On Saturday, March 18, a poster by St. Olaf College’s Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Justice for a “peaceful prayer vigil in response to recent school shootings against gun violence” was vandalized. It was found feet away from the spot where a conservative display was damaged. In black pen a student had scratched out “against gun violence” and written “mental illness!!” This rhetoric is popular among the Republican party, with vocalized support from President Donald Trump, who told reporters in November after the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas that the problem “isn’t a guns situation [but] a mental health problem at the highest level.” After a gunman killed 58 in Las Vegas, Trump was quoted saying that the shooter is “a very sick man,” and “a demented person.” After the recent Parkland, Florida shooting, Trump said, “to help secure our schools, and tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” he would be working with leaders in the local and larger communities.

The decision to omit guns from a discussion on gun violence to instead focus on mental health is an extremely damaging one. The  mindset that mental illness causes mass shootings rather than access to guns intensifies the very real stigma already present against people with mental illnesses, further ostracizing and othering them and marking them as inherently violent and bad. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five youths and adults live with a mental illness in a given year. Claiming that gun violence is due to mental illness invalidates and villainizes the large number of peaceful Americans living with mental illnesses.

The problem is guns. There have been 290 U.S. shootings since Sandy Hook in 2013, Americans own more guns per capita than residents of any other country and hold 31 percent of the world’s mass shooters, despite the U.S.’s population making up less that five percent of the world population. In the U.S., gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher than other high-income countries (including Eastern and Western European countries, Japan and South Korea) – yet this may not even include the gun deaths by police as “law enforcements agencies are not required to report on gun killings by police,” because they’re labelled “justifiable homicides” and more or may not be included, according to a 2018 article by CNN titled “How US Gun Culture Compares with the World in Five Charts.”

“Claiming that gun violence is due to mental illness invalidates and villainies the large number of peaceful Americans living with mental illnesses.” – Alexandra Thomas ’20

“Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Gun Violence,” an article by the New York Times editorial board, asserts that “mental illness is not a factor in most violent acts,” and that “according to one epidemiological estimate, entirely eliminating the effects of mental illness would reduce all violence by only 4 percent. Over all, less than 5 percent of gun homicides between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people with diagnoses of mental illness, according to a public health study published this year.” Given these facts, it is clear that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses will never commit violent crimes.

While an elimination of mental illness would only reduce all violence by four percent if such a thing were possible, with stricter gun control laws, violence would reduce drastically. In Australia, where gun control is more strict, the homicides by firearms are 28.3 per million less than those in America, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

A poster for peaceful prayer against gun violence should not have been defaced with harmful ideology that employs mental illness as a scapegoat in the deaths of millions of Americans annually, and which ostracizes the mentally ill population on St. Olaf’s campus.

The issue of gun violence in the U.S. is intersectional and multifaceted. The impetus for violence against different races, classes, religions etc. varies and are not condensable into one short op-ed article. This article focuses on America’s mass shootings, but does not mean minimize or neglect gun violence that is a result of police brutality, systemic hatred or biases.

Alekzandra Thoms ’20 (thoms1@stolaf.edu) is from Bronxville, N.Y. They major in music and studio art. 

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