This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Every time a mass murder happens, people with psychiatric illnesses get nervous. For good reason.
James Holmes, who’s been accused of gunning down 12 people in a Colorado theater July 12, turns out to have been seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in schizophrenia. There’s no proof yet that Holmes was mentally ill, but he may well fit into a familiar profile: the man with the diagnosis, the grudge and the gun.
Jared Loughner, who disabled Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Tucson last year, was psychotic. Seung Hui Cho, who massacred 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007, had actually been declared mentally ill by a judge and ordered into treatment.
Closer to home, Maurice Clemmons appears to have had delusional spells in the months leading up to his murder of four Lakewood police officers in 2009.
It’s all too easy to make a connection between mental illness and violence.
The reality is more complex. Broad studies have demonstrated that no single category of mental illness, by itself, is linked to higher rates of violence. In any case, it is grossly unjust to stigmatize all people with psychiatric illnesses as potential killers.
Another layer of the complexity, though, is the fact that mental illness is often a factor in mass murders – a rare but extremely shocking type of crime. The question comes up again and again: Why can’t we keep guns out of the hands of people like Loughner or Cho?
In theory, the federal background checks that firearms dealers run on their customers would identify severely disturbed people.
But the system is riddled with gaps. The state of Washington does a good job of telling the feds when its citizens are ordered into treatment, but many states don’t. An authoritative study released in November by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that some states – and some federal agencies – submit very few mental health reports to the background check database.
Another problem is using involuntary commitment as the trigger for denying firearms purchases. Few of the people who are ordered into treatment are likely to go on killing sprees – and few of the people likely to go on killing sprees are ordered into treatment.
The research shows that only a fraction of severely disturbed people pose a clear threat. The ones who do are male. They tend to be young or youngish. They tend to abuse drugs or alcohol. They typically have some history of violence. They sometimes have multiple forms of mental illness.
A screen that precise could have flagged Clemmons, Loughner and other killers without stigmatizing harmless patients. The existing system is a blunt instrument that slams the wrong people and usually misses the right ones. Flailing around blindly is not the way to prevent killings by the homicidally sick.