Sasso: Guns and mental illness

(October 2, 2015)

**The Indianapolis Star only printed about half of the piece. I wanted to share all of it with you.**

Since the mass shooting in Oregon at Umpqua Community College, two more college shootings in Texas and Arizona have occurred, the latest of 52 school firearms incidents in 2015. Tragically, the school deaths are but a fraction of the 92 gun deaths that happen on average every day.

There is a great deal of posturing about the reasons behind this rampant violence. Often it is hard to separate fact from political opinion. Here are some facts:

Nearly a third of all mass shootings in the world take place in the United States.

The United States has the highest firearm homicide rate among developed countries.

Civilians in the United States legally own three hundred million guns, nearly enough for every citizen to have one. A significant number of those guns, two hundred and fifty thousand, are annually stolen in robberies.

There is a prevalent opinion that mental illness is the cause of gun violence; that If we could only keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and put greater money into mental health services, our problem would be solved. There is no doubt that better services and insurance coverage for mental health are critical goals in themselves, but, contrary to popular belief, those changes would not significantly reduce gun violence.

Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, professor of psychiatry at Duke, tells us that even “if we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression …violence would go down by only four percent.” Ninety-six percent of gun violence is not related to mental illness.

The president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Renee Binder reports that “the mentally ill will be far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it”. Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, a history of violent behavior, bullying and easy access and availability of guns are much stronger indicators. In fact, targeting individuals who
experience psychological problems stigmatizes and shames them. In the long run, it actually makes them reluctant to seek the help they need.

We continue to dwell on mental illness as an easy target, rather than acknowledge the real difficulty – too many firearms. To argue that the problem is too few guns would be laughable, if it were not so tragic. Umpqua Community College was not a gun free zone, and there were people on campus who had guns at the time of the massacre. It did not make a difference.

The recent suggestion that if only Jews during the Holocaust had guns, they would have been able to save themselves is an outrage. No personal weapons would have stopped the vast machinery of Nazism which received widespread public support. In the Warsaw Ghetto, partisans did have guns. In the ghetto uprising, 20 Nazis died and 13,000 Jews were murdered.

The gun lobby and those who feel beholden to it offer a variety of reasons for gun violence. They are convenient smoke screens that refuse to recognize the smoking gun in our midst. In 2011, economist Richard Florida found greater mental illness among other factors commonly assumed to be causal, did not even correlate with increased violence. What he did find was that states with stricter background checks and licensing procedures reported fewer gun-related homicides.

So often it is argued that guns don’t kill, people do. How many more lives have to be lost before we acknowledge that it is people with guns who have the ability to inflict the most damage to others and to themselves?

Countries with lower rates of firearm violence all have somethings in common: assault and semi-automatic weapons bans, background checks for private and online sales and at gun shows, bans on high capacity ammunition clips and requirements for trigger locks and safe storage.

We must do more than erect memorials, offer condolences and prayers. We must insist that our political leaders have the courage to say, “Enough”, and actually do something that will save lives.