No, explains Butte County Behavioral Health Director Scott Kennelly. Only 3-5% of mass shooters have a mental illness. Yet, when politics fails us, people often turn to the wielder of the gun rather than the gun itself. It is easy to categorize mass shooters as mentally ill, as if they have a disease that makes them intrinsically different from any of us. However, this heuristic model skirts the real issue, which Kennelly calls “adverse childhood experiences.” This may sound flippant and clichéd, but those who resort to gun violence have had hard childhoods. The traumas of their early years motivate them to do what they do. These traumas are in turn created by the many problems of society: poverty, prejudice, privilege, etc. It’s a story we’ve all heard before, but that does not mean it is not true, nor does it take away any of its importance.
Gun violence may not be generally related to mental illness, but the two are not entirely unconnected. It is a sad truth that society’s disregard and stigma can lead people with mental illness to do things that they would otherwise not do. This begs the question of how we treat those 3-5% of cases where there is a clear connection between the shooter and mental illness. For example, a Texas man was recently acquitted of murder, due to a mental illness. This case raises several issues: where do we draw the line when mental illness is concerned? Some people may be concerned that mental illness may become an excuse to get away with crimes. Doing so would only cause more misunderstanding of mental illness. However, it is imperative that we not forget the importance of understanding people holistically. Thinking through the lens of mental illness is valuable in many ways. In other words, then, as with all topics which are posted on this blog, my answer to this problem is complicated. One solution is to treat every gun violence case with the most attention to detail and nuance as possible, gathering as much information as possible to make the most informed decision possible. Meanwhile, we must enact sociopolitical reform to reduce both the connection between mental illness and gun violence and reduce gun violence in general. The fundamental goal, however, is always the same: educate and inform about mental illness.