Over the last several months, the intersection of horrific shootings and Presidential politics has once again ignited the debate over mental illness and guns. After Sandy Hook, the pro-gun forces took the position that mass shootings could be stopped if we ‘fixed’ the mental health system. In the wake of Roseburg, however, even that tepid (and meaningless) strategy has been abandoned by the gun gang and their Republican allies with Shlump Trump advising us that too many mentally-ill people “slip through the cracks.” Meanwhile, mental health professionals and researchers continue to hold to the belief that, with the exception of suicide, that there is little, if any connection between mental illness and violent behavior involving guns.
What both sides seem to be saying is there’s no real solution to the problem of gun violence from a mental health perspective, because either there are too many crazies walking around or there’s no necessary connection between being mentally ill and using a gun in a violent way . But deciding that a certain kind of behavior does or doesn’t reflect mental illness is one thing; understanding the behavior itself is something else.
If the evidence about gun violence tells us anything, it’s that using a gun to hurt yourself or someone else is an overwhelmingly impulsive act. It is impulsive because in perhaps 90% of all gun violence, the shooter and victim not only knew each other before the gun was pulled out, but there had been continuous and angry or abusive contact between the two parties often for a lengthy period of time. Obviously this is the case in gun suicides, which comprises two-thirds of all gun mortality; it’s true in most gun homicides, particularly for every gun homicide that grows out of a domestic dispute. As for gun morbidity, which is so noticeable between the ages 15 and 25, most of the young men who present themselves in ERs and clinics with gun violence injuries previously sought medical assistance for other, less lethal injuries committed by the same assailants again and again.
Gun violence is not the usual way in which disputes are settled. In situations where two people get involved in a continuous dispute, four out of five of these arguments are eventually resolved violently or not – and here’s the critical point – without anyone pulling out a gun. As Lester Adelson says in what remains the most brilliant article ever written about gun violence: “With its peculiar lethality a gun converts a spat into a slaying and an argument into a killing.” But for every act of gun violence there are hundreds, no doubt thousands of spats and arguments that do not end up with someone being shot with a gun. And for the 20,000 law-abiding gun owners who use a gun to end their own lives each year, there are tens of thousands of seriously-depressed men and women who obtain counseling and assistance without ever thinking of taking out a gun.
Gun violence, particularly mass shootings, tears deep wounds in our cultural and emotional frameworks and shouldn’t be the subject of nonsensical and cynical sloganeering by entertainers masquerading as Presidential candidates who spend a few months on the national media circuit shamelessly promoting their names. By the same token, those who are genuinely trying to do something to eliminate gun violence need to understand what is really at issue when it comes to defining a response to this national shame.
The word ‘impulsive’ means that someone engages in behavior without first spending one second considering the consequences of the act. The good news is that nearly all of us learn how to express anger, even rage, without yanking out a gun. Pardon the pun, but we still don’t know have a good fix on the trigger mechanism that turns violent behavior into gun-violent behavior. And if you want to yank out a piece, believe me, it will be there to yank out. Believe me.