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Another mass shooting forces questions about gun-control debate

Last week, America added another mass shooting incident to an already long and distressing list. Six people were killed during a 22-year-old man’s shooting rampage, which occurred near Santa Barbara, California. Making the case even more chilling is the fact that the shooter revealed his plans ahead of time in a YouTube video.

After any incident of mass murder (defined as four or more deaths in a single incident), the gun-control debate is reignited, if only briefly. Those who largely or completely oppose gun control continue to say that the problem lies not with the availability of guns but with a failure of America’s mental health system. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, professor of clinical psychology Richard A. Friedman takes issue with that argument.

Friedman notes that mass shootings are highly publicized, but they accounted for only 0.15 percent of U.S. homicides in 2012. Most if not all of the shooters in these mass slayings were both mentally ill and inclined toward violence. But the same cannot be said for most of the shooters responsible for more than 99 percent of the other gun deaths.

The correlation between mental illness and violence is tenuous at best. Friedman says that only about 4 percent of the violent acts committed annually in the United States can be reasonably attributed to mental illness. A far bigger risk factor is drug and/or alcohol abuse. Compared to the general population, those with substance abuse problems are seven times more likely to commit acts of violence.

If the stated goal is to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who are statistically likely to be violent, how do we begin the screening process? Most individuals with mental illness do not meet criteria that would prohibit them from buying guns. And chances are that the non-mentally-ill individuals who are likely to be violent have an even easier time purchasing these weapons.

To be sure, the issues of violence prevention and gun control are complex in their own right. But if we are going to have these important discussions, we need to deal only with facts and statistics instead of continuing to promote false narratives. It seems clear that the argument for mental health screening as a prerequisite for gun ownership is misleading at best and, more likely, a tragic distraction from more effective solutions.

Source: New York Times, "Why Can’t Doctors Identify Killers?" Richard A. Friedman, May 27, 2014

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