Good news and bad news about gun laws, mental illness and violence — Part 3

This is Part 3 in a three-part series on gun laws, mental illness and violence in the United States. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

By Jeffrey Swanson, PhD

So what can the law do about gun violence?  The US Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 3025 (2010) made it pretty clear that legal solutions to our nation’s firearm violence problem do not include “getting rid of the guns,” but do include preventing dangerous people from getting their hands on them.

So, the difficult question of whether our nation’s gun laws are capturing the right “dangerous people” remains crucial, and it invites a prior question: Whose criteria are we talking about?

Variations in law and policy among the states and between federal and state statutes mean that the same person with a severe mental illness might be disqualified from buying a gun in one state but not in another. Functional incapacity stemming from a psychiatric disorder may or may not lead to firearm disqualification, depending on how various applicable laws and policies define it in different contexts.

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Good news and bad news about gun laws, mental illness and violence — Part 2

This is Part 2 in a three-part series on gun laws, mental illness and violence in the United States. Read Part 1.

By Jeffrey Swanson, PhD

It is hard to find good news in our nation’s gun violence statistics, but here’s this: If somebody shoots you today, your chances of survival are about 83 percent — up from 78 percent just ten years ago.  The improving survival rate for gunshot victims has helped nudge the national homicide rate down by about half a percentage point since 2001. Of course, the cloud behind that silver lining is that more people are actually getting shot. The CDC recorded almost 600,000 injuries caused by assault with a firearm in the past decade, as the combined rate of fatal and nonfatal gun assault injuries rose from about 18 to about 21 per hundred thousand.

Now for the bad news: When the shooter and the victim happen to be the same person, the odds of survival and death are reversed: 8 out of 10 die. Suicide attempts with a gun almost always succeed, because they are almost always aimed at the brain at close range, and there is seldom anyone around to call 911.

For those who “get lucky,” surviving a gunshot to the head can be a pyrrhic victory.  We all cheered Gabrielle Giffords’ courageous walk across the stage at the Democratic National Convention, but let’s face it: Her physical appearance was as much a reminder of what she has lost as it was a testimony to the miracles that timely neurosurgery can perform. Most survivors of gunshot injuries — whether self- or other-inflicted — don’t look like much like Gabby Giffords and they tend to have fewer supportive friends. They are often disadvantaged young people who struggle to recover in places where hope runs thin. Could better gun laws, better enforced, prevent their plight?  Perhaps they could, but only as a small piece of complex sociological puzzle.

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Good News and Bad News About Gun Laws, Mental Illness and Violence — Part 1

This is Part 1 in a three-part series on gun laws, mental illness and violence in the United States.

by Jeffrey Swanson, PhD

Federal and state efforts to restrict firearms access to potentially dangerous people with mental illness have focused in recent years on extending the reach of states’ reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). In August, in response to the Colorado movie theater shooting, Mayors Against Illegal Guns released a report tallying the number of mental health records each state has submitted to the NICS and ranking each state’s reporting performance. Nearly five years after Congress enacted the NICS Improvement Act, only about half the states have submitted more than a negligible proportion of their mental health records.

The Mayors’ report mentions the “mentally unstable man” who shot President Reagan and his press secretary, Jim Brady, for whom the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was named. It recalls the deadly rampages at Virginia Tech in 2007 and in Tucson in 2011. It includes an interactive map titled Fatal Gaps: Can dangerous people buy guns in your state?  The not-so-implicit message here is that states’ spotty reporting of mental health records to the background check database is partly to blame for the senseless deaths in mass shootings.

It is easy to say there’s a problem with our gun laws or their enforcement by pointing to isolated cases where mentally disturbed mass shooters were able legally to buy guns. That is probably true. Unfortunately, there is no evidence yet available to suggest that filling the NICS with more records of people with gun-disqualifying mental health histories would have any measurable impact in reducing firearm violence in the population.

A study underway at Duke University, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Public Health Law Research Program, may soon provide some answers to that question. Whatever the study finds, though, the results will hinge on whether two assumptions underlying our gun prohibitions turn out to be true:  that there is a strong causal relationship between serious mental illness and gun violence; and that our extant gun-disqualifying legal criteria can accurately identify the subgroup of mentally ill individuals at risk.

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