Guns don’t kill; mentally ill people do. Wait. WHAT?


It’s at times like this that I wish I was eloquent. I wish I could adequately convey how much my heart aches for everyone affected by what happened in Connecticut on Friday. My twins are in the first grade at school so you can imagine what I’ve been thinking. When Owen woke up during the night on Friday, I didn’t do what I do normally and take him back to his bed for a cuddle, I grabbed him and brought him to sleep with me. As I started drafting this post on Saturday morning the three of us, Owen, Oliver and I, were all smushed up together on the couch. It was hard to be physically apart from them in the aftermath of that tragedy.

There have been three themes swirling around in my mind since I first heard about this mass murder and I’m sharing them here in the order in which they dominated my thoughts.

Turn off the television

Easy for me to say, I don’t have one. If you can heed the advice though it really is a good idea. I’ve written before about the problems with 24/7 breaking news coverage of mass shootings so I won’t repeat myself but I do encourage you to watch the video below if you haven’t already, as it succinctly outlines some of the reasons why media coverage of these events can be so problematic:

I have seen so much false information pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feed that my conviction with respect to this point is even stronger than it was before. People were reporting the perpetrator as Ryan Lanza before it was his brother Adam. The nature of the weapon(s) used was being disputed. The killer was a parent of one of the kids involved in a domestic dispute with his wife before he was the son of one of the teachers shot dead at school – none of which was accurate. There were the rumours and speculation about the killer’s neurology – he was autistic, had aspergers, a personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, was a loner and friendless … at the time I started writing this post the killer’s identity hadn’t even been confirmed and yet the standard tropes were all being trotted out.

It’s understandable, our need to know is fuelled by a burning desire to understand, to make sense of something senseless. But it takes time and distance before a clear picture of what happened can emerge and all speculation does is create yet another casualty – the truth. It also glorifies evil people when our focus should be on those who are suffering.

Semi-automatic weapons are good at killing lots of people really quickly

Bushwhacker .223 calibre assault rifle

In terms of public policy, I’m not reflexively anti-gun. I know people who hunt; it’s certainly not my cup of tea but these folks consume what they kill and, in my admittedly limited experience, are law-abiding, decent people. You know what they don’t use to kill deer though? Semi-automatic weapons.

No-one has yet been able to explain to me how or why U.S. civilians have a constitutional right to own military-grade weaponry. As far as need goes, hunters don’t need them, farmers don’t need them, no-one needs them to adequately protect themselves, their families or their property. Unless you really are preparing for the zombie apocalypse, but then you have larger problems.

Massacres happen worldwide. The difference between most places and the United States is in the reaction to them. In the U.S., people criticize the issue of limiting access to assault weapons as a knee-jerk response that politicizes tragedy. But what about the knee-jerk response that says placing limitations on access to certain weapons can never and should never be considered? Planes don’t kill people either and yet after 9/11 we accepted additional restrictions on individuals who wanted to learn to fly or travel on them. As James Fallows eloquently argued in JULY of this year:

“There will be more [mass shootings]; we absolutely know it; we also know that we will not change the circumstances that allow such episodes to recur. I am an optimist about most things, but not about this. Everyone around the world understands this reality too. It is the kind of thing that makes them consider America dangerous, and mad.”

Stop, stop, PLEASE STOP suggesting that perpetrators of violent crimes have an atypical neurology.


A lot of my friends are doing this in perfectly innocent ways by suggesting that what happened in Connecticut is an indication that we need to focus on the state of the mental health system. Many people have been sharing a blog post in which the writer, talking about her mentally ill son, explicitly compares herself to Adam Lanza’s mother. My friends talk about people falling through the cracks and being poorly served by the system, all of which is both true AND irrelevant. It’s making me angry and I don’t want to be angry right now, especially not with people I like and love.

Rorschach test blot 01

I’m not a psychiatrist, I didn’t even pretend to be one so I could have input on the DSM V (heh), but for the purposes of this blog post only I’m going to give you my definition of mental illness and mental disability:

  • Autism is neither, it is a developmental disability.
  • A mental disability is a long-term or permanent condition which doesn’t necessarily prevent an individual from functioning well when they have access to services and support (including medication where necessary). Those affected by bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder are, in my opinion, mentally disabled and not necessarily mentally ill. I would fall into this category – I can concentrate, work, feed myself, look after my children and get out of bed just fine, as long as I am taking a high dosage of anti-depressants. Lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioural therapy are insufficient, in and of themselves, to prevent me from becoming depressed. I need anti-depressants in order to function in the same way that Type 1 diabetics need insulin in order to live.
  • A mental illness is a debilitating state. When an individual is mentally ill it is extremely difficult, often impossible, to function. A mentally ill person can’t work or take care of themselves adequately. An example might be someone suffering from a severely depressive episode in the context of post-partum depression, major depressive disorder or a depressive phase in bi-polar individuals. The mentally ill are typically simply incapable of planning and executing military-style executions of large numbers of people.
  • Where does psychopathy fit in? Using my definition it’s not a mental illness because most psychopaths function perfectly adequately – they can do well at school, hold down a job, even run a company. But psychopathy isn’t really a disability either because there are no services or supports that can ameliorate it. What we really definitively know about psychopaths is that we don’t really know that much about them. They’re rare, extremely hard to detect and there’s no “treatment” available. Most psychopaths are sub-criminal so even if we were to screen for them, what are we advocating – locking them away on the off-chance they will run amok and kill people?

If you want an umbrella term to use for all the categories above then atypical neurology is the best I can come up with. What people do when they assume that mass murderers are atypically neurological is perpetuate a vicious cycle that harms and hurts the very people they may be trying to help. Let’s break down this vicious cycle in a way that is admittedly simplistic but also, I believe, accurate.

  • The entertainment industry and the news media portray the mentally ill as violent:

Norman Bates

“Characters in prime time television portrayed as having a mental illness are depicted as the most dangerous of all demographic groups: 60 percent were shown to be involved in crime or violence” (Mental Health American, 1999).

“Most news accounts portray people with mental illness as dangerous” (Wahl, 1995).

  • The public perception of the mentally ill as violent increases.

“A longitudinal study of American’s attitudes on mental health between 1950 and 1996 found, “the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled.” Also, the vast majority of Americans believe that persons with mental illnesses pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves (Pescosolido, et al., 1996, Pescosolido et al., 1999).”

  • The stigma that is already attached to mental illness increases, as does discrimination against the mentally ill.

The discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002).

The effects of stigma and discrimination are profound. The President’s New Freedom Commission onMental Health found that, “Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders – especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment (New Freedom Commission, 2003).”

Source for the above quotes.

  • Mentally ill people are already at a greater risk of suicide. When we as a society attach further stigma to mental illness it just results in an increase in all the risk factors that make that outcome more likely. Just to put some numbers on how great a threat suicide is in individuals with major depressive order, this study found that the mortality rate from suicide ranged from 20%, to 41% in the case of individuals who suffered from psychotic depression.

Don’t just take my word for it – here are two posts outlining the stigma and harmful outcomes that arise when people make assumptions, one from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg and the other from Neurodivergent K.

Every time any one of us suggests that mass violence is caused by mental illness, we make the situation for the mentally ill worse. I want positive action on mental healthcare too, but only mentioning it when there are school shootings or when men annihilate their families – the data shows that it results in the exact opposite. I understand the assumption that no-one could possibly execute 20 children and be sane. Our brains find it hard to comprehend acts that are incomprehensible but our assumptions usually turn out to be false and always end up being damaging.

Editing to add a link to a blog post: “If you really care about mental health” which makes this exact point far more succinctly than I do.

The data makes it clear – there is in fact a negative correlation between mental illness and violence. Not only are mentally ill people no more likely to commit violent acts than the mentally healthy, they are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. The only exception to this is when substance abuse is involved. The combination of mental illness and substance abuse can result in an increase in violent behaviours but the vast majority of those behaviours (86%) are directed at family members and friends rather than strangers.

So what do we know about the people that commit mass murder?

After Columbine the FBI undertook a study to determine what the profile was for a school shooter. Their conclusion was that… there is no profile of a school shooter. As part of the Safe Schools initiative, the Secret Service and Department of Education also analysed 37 shootings that occurred from 1974 to 2000. Their conclusions about the killers were:

“There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.”

  • They came from all socio-economic and demographic backgrounds.
  • 63% of them lived in two-parent, stable homes.
  • Their school grades ranged the gamut from excellent to failing.
  • Nearly half of them were socially integrated in terms of friendships and group activities. Only 12% had no close friends.
  • In terms of “getting into trouble” at school, 63% had never or only rarely been in any trouble.
  • Most of the attackers felt persecuted in some way.
  • Two-thirds of attackers had never received a mental health evaluation.
  • 25% of the attackers had known substance abuse problems.
  • A minority of the attackers showed an interest in violence but none of them had any prior history of violent or even criminal behaviour.
  • 78% of them had either attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts. 61% of the attackers had experienced depressive episodes at some point. So, given my criteria outlined above, a large number of these boys could possibly be considered mentally disabled but no evidence was found to indicate that the attacks happened during a time of mental illness. In fact, a small number of the attacks happened at a time when the attackers were improving academically (5%) and disciplinary problems at school were declining (7%).

In terms of how many school shooters could be considered mentally ill, the one area that the data does indicate we should focus on is where the attacker could be affected by a major depressive disorder combined with substance abuse. As I outlined above, we know that when mental illness and substance abuse occur together, there is a risk for increased violence. The typical outcome of that violence is self-directed (suicide) but it can also be directed at family and friends.

The Safe School study uncovered only three things that primarily all the attackers had in common:

  • They had suffered a loss or failure prior to the attack. These losses ranged from personal (51% had lost a loved one or an important relationship had ended) to economic (loss of a job) to perceived (66% had suffered some kind of loss in status). Regardless of the nature of the loss, all of the perpetrators were having trouble handling it.
  • These were not crimes of passion however. 93% of these attacks were planned well in advance. This supports my hypothesis that the perpetrators were unlikely to be mentally ill at the time of the attacks.
  • They were ALL, without exception, young males. They varied in age between 11 and 21, with most attackers being in the 13 to 18 year-old range.

If we want to jump to conclusions about acts of mass violence then let’s jump to one that’s actually supported by some data.

Why are we failing grieving young men and what can we do about it?

Grieving young men

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17 Responses to Guns don’t kill; mentally ill people do. Wait. WHAT?

  1. Teriann December 17, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    Fantastic post SBKM!

    • OMum22 December 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      Thank you Teriann.

  2. Anne December 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    Having lived in the United States with a spouse who was mentally ill,, she was unable to access proper therapy and medication. The cost of insurance was $1,600 per month and the threshold for medicare was too low for us to qualify. This man was not mentally sound and stable. Premeditated murder involves mental instability. Diagnosed or not, he was mentally ill. I can’t imagine that the percentage of mass murders who are happy/healthy/insured/employed is very high.

    The US needs to do something about it’s mental health services.

    • OMum22 December 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      Thanks Anne. We agree – mental health services are inadequate everywhere. A week ago I was speaking with a mother whose teenage son ended up in court before something was done to help him. This is totally unacceptable.

      At this point we do not know if Adam Lanza was mentally ill. I’m not suggesting that there is no way he could be mentally ill but our assumptions that you *have* to be mentally ill in order to commit these crimes are simply wrong. They are not only wrong but they are damaging the mentally ill.

    • Jeb May 26, 2014 at 12:07 am #

      “Diagnosed or not, he was mentally ill. I can’t imagine that the percentage of mass murders who are happy/healthy/insured/employed is very high”…

      Did you read any of the above article? The only thing in common was basically, suffered a recent loss, whatever that was. The only other commonality is drug abuse.

      To put your own words in foot-in-mouth, I’ll re-iterate a quote above: the stigma, especially of schizophrenia, leaves people to isolate those who are mentally ill. They don’t socialize with them, they avoid living with them, they avoid renting to them, they avoid employing them, and they avoid dating them.

      If nobody will employ you, you have no place to live, nobody will socialize with you, nobody will date you, and then after a while you have no family – how does any part of your statement about happy/healthy/insured/employed fit?

      The reality is it doesn’t. The reality for most psychiatric patients is just that – after a short while, they can’t find a job. Then they can’t get a place to stay. Soon enough, unless they really have a wonderful family, it’s to the streets, also with no way usually to pay for medication, unless you think Thorazine is a micracle-cure for anything.

      So in essence – OF COURSE happy/healthy/insured/employed people aren’t commonly connected to mass-murder. The truth is, not many who are mentally ill fit into ANY of those categories.

      You have to listen to the DATA above. The ONLY reason, and I’ve seen this numerous times, for mentally ill people to commit any form of violence in the majority of cases involves drugs, and yes, majority of those cases are involved with people they know – NOT mass murders.

      You have to understand that we are talking about people who are driven to the point of doing something very irrational. If you really want to know why people do these sorts of things, the fact is, the OP just told you at the bottom of his post.

      What does all of these things have in common? A recent loss, whatever that was, that they could not deal with. Consider Columbine. Same thing, only back then we never attached mental illness to it. The people involved there committed mass-murder, same school scenario, and the REASON was social status.

      It’s the same thing as a kid I knew in HS who committed suicide. The reality was, so many people picked on him that one day he just couldn’t ‘take it anymore’. Nothing I did that day before to help him mattered, and I had absolutely no idea he was suicidal. He was pissed that day..

      Now, so what is it causing all of this ‘behavior’? It’s quite simple – we’re pushing people past their breaking point, whatever that may be. Probably in most cases, people have done that time and time again until they just can’t ‘handle it anymore’.

      Consider how much people with a mental illness suffer on their own naturally. I heard of ‘schizo goggles’, where a psychiatrist was ordered to wear goggles where they had to walk through a mall of just paranoia. She had to take them off after a short while. Then the guy said ‘imagine you can’t take off those goggles’.

      The problem with that, is in reality, that’s really not a difficult thing to take if you have to. People staring at you isn’t really that big of a deal to me. But there are others who literally suffer every day.

      But there are most who can work, even if people need to give them what they need to adjust to a work life and stay treated as necessary – but this society just doesn’t give them that. Heck, this society can’t even employ much over 60% of its own people, right here and now.

      Then you look at the mentally ill, and they can’t get a job, they can’t find a place to live, they can’t get insurance, they can’t pay for the good medications, there’s just no way but down.

      It’s not their fault there is no way but down. The truth is society always pushes these people further and further into a corner, and here is why you have a suicide rate that is around 40%…

      If you can imagine that most of these patients now die because of use of dangerous drugs or interactions between them, and a small subset are killed by other people, 40% is basically everybody else.

      I’m not saying you should grow a chip on your shoulder and have compassion, but geez – talk about making a statement in blatant dis-regard for the OP and also not even noticing that you are full of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

      You say “The US needs to do something about it’s mental health services”. The author just said “That is both TRUE and IRRELEVANT.” The reason that is said is because even IF we fixed the mental health system so that for once in their lives, people could at least get the medication and social support system they need, they would still be faced with homelessness, poverty, and unemployment. That’s why it’s irrelevant. Not only do you need to fix the mental health services, but people need to stop being so irrational about it. Then we need to actually employ most people who can work.

      The fact is, the mentally ill have it rougher than most everyone else. Yet they are not only no more likely than the general public to commit a crime, but they are usually victims of some sort of negative thing.

      So the answer isn’t as easy as ‘let’s fix the mental health system’. The fact is, there are much more crimes committed every day that are NOT being carried out by a mental patient that you all are completely IGNORING. That’s FACT. Why even concentrate on this other than it was all at one go? Or because it made national headlines when it shouldn’t have?

      You all have so much to fix in this society that I don’t even know where to begin. Wait – yes I did. It was in revising monetary systems. That seems to be the best starting point in solving all of it. The problem? It’s socialism. For one, people think it is unfair to give everyone good lives. For two, people at the top think they ‘deserve it all’. For three, a lot of people think ‘this is as good as it gets’.

      Let me ask you something – what do you think of this world? My neighbor, who is bipolar, thinks this is ‘hell’. I said, sadly, it’s the earth, honey – everyone else just made it like a hell. Then she was like ‘well, we’re all going to hell after this anyway’. I told her ‘heaven is not a heaven if there is also a hell to it’.

      You people have some serious rethinking to do in terms of society, culture, and what you want to value in life, beliefs, what you think of, what you do, how you feel, and what you want out of a place like the earth.

      My take on it? Really, everybody has about 50 years to make this decision and find a way to make it work – to turn the earth eventually into a heaven. Otherwise, climate change will kick in at some point after that and there won’t be any saving ‘humans’, let alone any creature except for the deepest parts of the oceanic ‘vents’…

  3. Rivkah Hammer December 18, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    As always informative and level headed. Thank you sbkm for putting into words what i have been thinking and wanting to say.

    • OMum22 December 18, 2012 at 4:09 am #

      Thanks Rivkah. I’m glad you found it helpful.

  4. Lisa December 18, 2012 at 3:48 am #

    Two Words: Port Arthur. Following an horrific mass shooting in Tasmania in the 90’s – the Australian government had a compulsory buyback of automatic weapons. They paid for this with 3% added to every Australian’s Medicare levy. (universal healthcare levy)

    Of course there have been shootings since, but not on the same scale.

    I suspect that the gun lobby in America have so much money and power that they deliberately influence and deflect the media to blame anything but gun ownership. The saddest irony is that the argument “we need our guns to protect ourselves from people with guns” was slashed when it was revealed that a woman with a prolific gun collection was shot first, Adam Lanza’s mother.

    Maybe it would be more effective and easier to force a massive tax on automatic weapons and ammunition and use the funds to build panic rooms and escape tunnels in public schools. If this sounds ridiculous, well it is no more ridiculous than allowing people to own and store military grade weaponry in suburban homes for the purposes of shooting deer. Last time I checked, Bambi was packing.

    Well written & researched D. If only we could use data to change the world. Xx

    • OMum22 December 18, 2012 at 4:08 am #

      Thank you Lisa – and thanks to my very unscientific Facebook poll of my Australian friends, none of them seem to have found the gun legislation introduced after Port Arthur problematic. The Canadian equivalent (on a much smaller scale) was the Montreal Massacre where 14 women were killed and another 14 people were injured. It does seem like the only place where these events don’t result in policy changes is the United States.

      Great article today in Slate from Dave Wiegel outlining how cleverly the NRA manipulates messaging about guns:

      • Craeg December 20, 2012 at 7:16 am #

        Not quite Omum, you’re igniring the big grey pachyderm in the room. you being a blogger, makes you part of the problem but… in esseence, the real issue is bigmedia

        ” If it bleeds, it leads. ”

        This has been true since Gutenburg finished the printing press. The infamy which follows a shooting is what most killers crave, even pyrrhically.

        So yeah… killers kill people, frakked up mentally or not, aided and abetted by the media.

        Also, I’m and Austrlian, and sorry to inform you but our gun laws SUCK.

        They were rushed through and remain inconsistent and in patches remain ridiculous. If you still want to go bug frak with a gun, it’s possible here in Australia…draconian gun laws notwithstanding.

    • Clark December 18, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

      Hey Lisa –

      A small point of note: Mrs. Lanza, although she had “an extensive gun collection”, was shot dead in her sleep by a .22 caliber rifle – not an assault rifle, not a beefed up handgun, but a simple hunting gun meant for shooting squirrels, etc.

  5. Clark December 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    I saw where the writer mentioned that she did not understand how the 2nd Amendment warranted “military-grade” weaponry. Hopefully I can help –

    The 2nd Amendment was written to protect the citizenry FROM an oppressive government, to ensure that the government would never be able to rule without consequence. If you look back in history, our forefathers fought an oppressive government that was considered the most powerful country in the world at the time (England) and won because EVERY citizen (not just the military) was armed and willing to die rather than continue living under the thumb of oppressive rule. Even after we won the Revolutionary war and as recent as WWII, our country has struggled to survive.

    On other words, the 2nd Amendment was written such that we would not just create another version of Imperialist England, but a government that would have no choice but to be ultimately answerable to its citizenry. It has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with either hunting or the “joy of shooting” – it is the logical corollary of and the power behind the 1st Amendment. First give the citizens the right to express their views without persecution, then protect it against any person or governmental body that would threaten it.

    So by deduction, it allows the US citizen the same rights to arms as the military. Obviously, this was before the days of cluster bombs and nuclear weapons, so rightfully so (I believe) we do not as citizens have access to weapons that would destroy on a mass scale. At present, we do not even have access to full automatic weaponry (except with great scrutiny through federal regulations) – but arguably we as citizens would still be able to impose our will on a government gone awry with what we currently have. We would always hope (perhaps naively, but I am an optimist) that our government would not ever turn its full destructive might against its own since it would be in effect destroying itself. Ultimately, it is a balance of power between the government and the governed – to ensure that we NEVER have to be the victim of oppression.

    I hope my input was helpful —

    Asperger-wired, responsible gun owner, and one of the “good guys”.

    • OMum22 December 18, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

      Thanks Clark – you misread me unfortunately. I didn’t write that I do not understand, I wrote that no-one has yet been able to explain it adequately. I have a Masters degree in US history and have debated the 2nd amendment often so I have in fact heard your argument before.

      • sea8ski December 29, 2012 at 2:55 am #

        Omum22-It is sad that you have not continued to learn history outside of school. Look up Democides or Genocides- example Death by Government.
        Governments with absolute power kill millions and millions. Ask the Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Jews, etc if they wish they were armed when their government was killing them by the thousands and millions.The 2nd Amendment puts the power where it belongs-with the people. YOU are responsible to protect your property and your family and yourself from all threats to your life and liberty. Armed citizenry is the only guarantee of freedom.“Hardly known, however, is that freedom also saves millions of lives from famine, disease, war, collective violence, and democide (genocide and mass murder).”

  6. Adrian Morgan December 20, 2012 at 5:07 am #

    Your definition of mental illness is at odds with what I’ve read in the past, particularly your statement that it is, by definition, debilitating.

    I tend to think of mental illness as analagous to physical illness. Plenty of physical illnesses are not debilitating (a cold, for example), so there’s no reason why mental illness should be, either.

    (Also note that people with colds are not particularly prone to violence either. They may *sneeze* violently, but very rarely injure other people in the process. Probably best not to stretch the analogy much further, though.)

  7. Tomis April 7, 2013 at 2:29 am #

    Semi auto guns are not the same as automatic. Semi auto is one trigger pull per show fired, with full auto you hold the trigger down and it keeps firing. In the Adam Lanza shooting, a semi automatic was used. Semi auto pretty much means that you pull the trigger, and the gas from that shot ejects the shell and loads another round to be fired next time the trigger is pulled. It is not military grade, as most military grade weapons are full auto, or at least 3 round burst. Hope this helps! And yes I do agree that just because you have a mental issue of any kind does not make you violent, although an overwhelming majority of mass murderers have had some sort of mental issues, and I also think that parents should do a better job of keeping their guns away from their children, so as to backhandedly cut off that option for killing themselves and/or others.


  1. Guns Don't Kill; Mentally Ill People Do...Wait, What? - - May 30, 2014

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