A study published in Preventative Medicine by Yu Lu and Jeff R. Temple concludes that “the majority of mental health symptoms examined were not related to gun violence. Instead, access to firearms was the primary culprit.”
The first caveat here is that the researchers did not measure or test “gun violence.” They asked respondents – young adults who at one time attended one of seven public high schools in the southern United States – if they had ever threatened someone with a gun. There is no context for these incidents mentioned in the published study or in the supplementary material, no means to identify if the respondent was the aggressor in these scenarios or if they were defending themselves. Sixteen respondents reported they had threatened someone with a firearm; six were young women.
The author's conclusion is based on sixteen out of 663 total respondents drawn from just seven public high schools across the southern United States. There are more than 50 schools serving grades 9 to 12 in the Houston Independent School District alone.
Mental illness itself is not tested; the researchers tested symptoms of mental health using a variety of screening questions about anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, hostility, impulsivity, and borderline personality disorder. The authors do acknowledge that participants who report such symptoms do not necessarily reach criteria to be diagnosed. Some of the questions, specifically when asked of young adults, introduce some doubt into the validity of the results. See pages 2-3 of the study for examples of the questions asked. They excluded substance abuse and severe mental disorders, and this is where we really start to run into problems.
Lu and Temple believe that mental illness is blamed for gun violence. We suspect this belief – and it is not limited to these researchers – is because mental illness is a common factor in the highest-profile mass shootings. The authors cite a previous study that found “only major mental disorders were significantly associated with past year violence” but then exclude severe disorders like schizophrenia and more severe symptoms like hallucinations from their study. Grant Duwe is the research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and literally wrote the book on mass murder. In an op-ed after Parkland, Duwe noted that peer-reviewed research showed that individuals with major mental disorders are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they abuse drugs. Duwe cited the same author that Lue and Temple cited for the similar claim in their paper. Duwe also reports that there is a relatively high rate of mental illness specifically among those who commit mass public shootings and notes that Mother Jones reached a similar conclusion.
Lu and Temple’s study finds that young people with guns are more likely to have threatened someone with a gun. Re-read that finding. Soak in the insight it offers, so long as you don’t mind a shallow pool. The presence of a gun is sort of a requirement to threaten someone with a gun, isn’t it?
Maybe not among the 16 “emerging adults” who told strangers they had committed a potentially illegal act.
The model in this study found that those who received mental health treatment in the past year significantly predicted threatening someone with a gun but that significance was washed out when the symptoms of mental health were included in the model. We suspect some multicollinearity between mental health treatment and mental health symptoms, as mental health treatment and the tested symptoms may be correlated.
Lu and Temple position their research as a contribution to the debate between “dangerous people” (the mentally ill) and “dangerous weapons” (firearms). Their own opinion on firearms is clear; their survey found that most people who carry guns did so for protection, and so they argue that “the best method to prevent gun carrying may be the building of an overall safer environment.”
Anti-gun advocates want to limit the rights of law-abiding gun owners and so research like this is held up as evidence that it must be the firearms themselves when, in reality, no one is arguing that everyone with any of the symptoms of mental illness tested here are necessarily dangerous. The inclusion of mental illness in the debate over gun rights is because some with severe mental illnesses do not receive the help they need and commit horrible acts. The responsible, law-abiding nature of tens of millions of American gun owners is ignored by efforts to restrict our rights.
Framing the argument as an attack on anyone dealing with any form of mental illness does a disservice to the debate. So does a study based on the unclear and potentially illegal self-reported actions of 16 young adults from a handful of schools in a specific region of the country.