What Role Does Serious Mental Illness Play in Mass Shootings and How Should We Address It?

Forthcoming, Criminology and Public Policy

45 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2019

See all articles by Jennifer L. Skeem

Jennifer L. Skeem

University of California, Berkeley

Edward Mulvey

University of Pittsburgh - Medical Center (UPMC)

Date Written: October 1, 2019


Research Summary
A popular explanation for mass shootings is that the assailant “must’ve been mentally ill.” A popular policy solution is exceptionalist — enter more gun-disqualifying psychiatric records into the background check system to keep guns away from identified people with mental illness. We synthesized research on the connection between mental illness and common violence, gun violence, homicide, and mass violence. We focused on serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, which are not the same as emotional distress from life circumstances and problematic personality traits. We found there is an association between serious mental illness and violence — but it is weaker than the public imagines or the media portrays; and rarely causal. Serious mental illness plays a limited role — it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for mass violence.

Policy Implications
Exceptionalist policies that assume serious mental illness is the cause of mass shootings will do little to prevent them — and they subject millions of nonviolent people with mental illness to stigma and unwarranted social control. Mass violence is a multi-determined problem. Because major risk factors for violence are shared, improvements in policies that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people without mental illness, will also go far in preventing incidents involving those with mental illness. Chiefly, these steps include sharpening the criteria for gun-disqualification and temporarily removing guns from individuals at imminent risk for violence. The implementation of threat assessment teams and funding for crisis services for people with- and without mental illness may also be helpful.

Keywords: mental illness, gun violence, mass shootings, violence

Suggested Citation

Skeem, Jennifer L. and Mulvey, Edward, What Role Does Serious Mental Illness Play in Mass Shootings and How Should We Address It? (October 1, 2019). Forthcoming, Criminology and Public Policy, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3473392 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3473392

Jennifer L. Skeem (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

120 Haviland Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7400
United States

Edward Mulvey

University of Pittsburgh - Medical Center (UPMC) ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA
United States

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