Don't Equate Mass Shootings With Mental Illness

Dinah Miller, MD


May 27, 2022

Here we go, again, and again, and again.

There just aren't enough tears, and before the bodies of 19 small children are identified, the political noise starts up. Mass shootings are a part of the American landscape, but when they happen at schools, we all feel a distinct sense of violation and gaping grief. Those children are so innocent, so deserving of a right to live their lives, hold their place with their families, create their own legacies, and die of natural causes at a ripe old age. And those children could have been our children. There was nothing special about them; they were just sent to school that day like every child who is sent to school every day.

Here is how the politics goes: The Republicans will blame the Democrats and the Democrats will blame the Republicans. Is Rachel Maddow at fault, or is it Tucker Carlson? Social media accounts blamed both of them for the racially motivated mass murder in a Buffalo grocery store earlier this month.

Mass murders were previously defined as a shooting where four or more victims are killed, excluding the shooter, in a public place that is not related to the commission of another crime. In 2012, the definition was changed to include events with three victims. This definition excludes gang violence and the murder of family members.

When it comes to explaining mass murder, the camps divide: They are the result of some combination of mental illness, easy access to firearms, and terrorism and hate. For psychiatry, there is a unique place in the argument — half of all mass shooters have exhibited signs or symptoms of psychiatric illness, and for those who want to deflect the issue away from issues related to the regulation of firearms, it becomes easy to blame "mental illness," as though that explains it all. Either the gunman "snapped" in such a way that no one could have predicted, or the mental health system is at fault for not preventing it.

There are many ways to be emotionally disturbed; mental illness is only one of them, and there is no psychiatric diagnosis that includes the symptom of shooting strangers, or shooting children. The vast majority of people, including nearly all psychiatrists, will never know someone who perpetrates a mass shooting. 

Can mental illness give us any insight into these senseless killings? Sometimes, but rarely. Take John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan as a means to impress actress Jodie Foster. Sometimes these killings are motivated by delusional beliefs. But the planning and preparation that goes into most mass shootings involves a degree of organization and forethought that we don't typically see in those with severe psychotic disorders.

The other psychological explanation that satisfies some of a nonmedical population is that these killers "just snap." This, too, is a term that is not included in our diagnostic vocabulary, but it remains a way for some to explain that which can't be explained. If mental illness, however, is the cause of mass murders, then more stringent gun control is unnecessary. Every state already has a mechanism to prevent those with criminal and specified psychiatric histories from buying legal firearms, and it may be inevitable that these screens are not perfect. 

The next line of political thinking moves to the psychiatric "if only." If only there were more state hospital beds and if only it were easier to compel people with psychiatric disorders to get treatment against their will, then we could eliminate these crimes. The Virginia tech shooter was mandated to get outpatient psychiatric treatment after a brief hospitalization, yet he never went and there was no mechanism in place to track him.

In cases where a person with a psychotic illness has a history of repeated violent episodes after stopping medications, it does make sense to mandate treatment, not because they are likely to shoot strangers, but because some people do become violent when they are ill and mental illness is believed to play a role in 10% of murders.

Mass murders remain rare, and while advocates for legislation that would make it easier to mandate involuntary care have cited violence prevention as a reason, it is hard to imagine that we would force people to get care because they "might" commit such a crime — unless there was convincing evidence that someone was at risk of committing such a heinous act.

For those who oppose stronger gun control laws, the "what if" may circulate around the need for even more firearms. What if teachers carried guns? What if schools were more heavily policed? What if the criminals were made to be afraid?

We are left with the fact that other countries do not see these numbers of mass shooting events, yet mental illness is ubiquitous. While the presence of psychiatric disorders does little to explain school shootings, we still have no understanding of what motivated the Sandy Hook killer, and it remains to be seen what we will come to understand about the gunman in Uvalde.

Mental illness is not unique to the United States; however, the number of available firearms is. In a country of 323 million people (including children and people who live in institutions where they have no access to firearms), there are estimated to be over 400 million guns in the US, 98% of which are owned by civilians. 

Hate crimes and terrorism are another explanation for mass murders. In these instances, the gunman makes his motive obvious: there are social media announcements, or the site of the shooting is a synagogue, a mosque, or a location where the victims are a specific race or religion. But hate may come out of a psychotic illness, and easy access to firearms allows for these crimes to continue. 

Firearms are now the number one cause of mortality in children. Very few of these deaths are the result of mass murders. Many more are from accidental deaths, targeted crime, or suicide. Still, school shootings rip at our hearts. Neither the victims or their grieving families have any role in the act, and suffering leaves its mark on families, communities, and all of us.

Are There Answers?

In many states, physicians can now request emergency removal of firearms from the home of someone who is both mentally ill and threatening either suicide or homicide. During the era when high-capacity firearms were banned, from 1994 to 2004, mass murders decreased in our country. While most gunmen use legal firearms they have purchased, I would contend that "smart guns" — firearms that allow only the legal owner to operate them based on biometrics – would prevent some mass shootings and many accidents, crimes, and suicides. Universal background checks and tracking gun purchases in the way we monitor controlled medications, or even Sudafed, might allow authorities to predict who might be at risk of committing these heinous acts.

In his newly released book, Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Murders in America, journalist Mark Follman argues for a proactive community approach using threat assessment methods and providing wraparound services to those who are deemed to be at risk for violent acts. Follman's voice is one of the few out there saying that these events are not random and are, in fact, preventable.

In psychiatry, we struggle with school shootings such as the one we just saw in Uvalde. Our own hearts ache as we hold our children close and empathize with the loss of strangers who have been through the unthinkable. We help our patients as they process their emotions. And we wonder whether any of our patients might ever do anything so horrific. The feelings get complicated, the sadness and anger intermingle while the frustration builds, and we are left with our fears and the hope that if that very rare person were to walk through our office door, we would know what to do.

Dinah Miller, MD, is a coauthor of Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.