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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