Mental Illness Isn’t Associated With Gun Violence, Study Confirms

By Kelly Burch 09/19/19

Researchers say the findings should have implications for public policy as the nation struggles to respond to an epidemic of gun violence. 

gun violence and mental health

Access to guns, not history of mental illness, is the biggest predictor of whether a person will threaten someone else or commit violent acts with a firearm, a recent study has confirmed. 

The study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, looked at the behavior of 663 young adults over a period of a few years. Researchers asked participants about their mental health history and symptoms of mental illness.

They also asked about participants' access to firearms, whether they carried a gun outside their home (other than for hunting), and if they had ever threatened anyone with a gun. 

Public Perception Is Wrong

“Despite the prevailing public and media perception of mental health being associated with gun violence, there is generally a lack of research to support this. We conducted this study to test the link and to provide scientific evidence,” Yu Lu, lead study author and an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, told PsyPost

Researchers wrote that the findings should have implications for public policy as the nation struggles to respond to an epidemic of gun violence. 

“We found that the majority of mental health symptoms we examined, including anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder, were unrelated to gun violence,” Lu said. “Instead, individuals with gun access were 18 times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun compared to those who did not have gun access, even after controlling for mental health, prior mental health treatment, and demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, race/ethnicity.”

Lu said that despite discussions about gun control and mental health access, there has been little research that looks at the interplay of gun violence and mental illness. 

The researcher explained, “There is an overall lack of research on gun violence. We are the first one to look at mental illness and gun access together, we are also the first one to use longitudinal data to look at the relationship overtime.”

Still, Lu pointed out that more research needs to be done. The study had some limitations. It did not include individuals with schizophrenia, for example. In addition, the study took place in the Houston, Texas area, where gun ownership rates are higher than elsewhere in the country. 

Lu emphasized what mental health advocates have been saying all along: that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence than to perpetrate a gun crime. 

“The main takeaway from the study is that we should not stigmatize people with mental health problems, not assume they are dangerous, because more than likely they are not dangerous and actually are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence,” Lu said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.