Mental Illness, Suicide, and Gun Control in America

By Miguel Moreno

Within the gun violence debate, politicians have argued and searched for a solution to mass shootings, which account for about two percent of firearm deaths in the United States, according to Daniel Webster of John Hopkins University. This small but heinous percentage of firearm homicides has been magnified by the media and lawmakers pushing for tighter gun laws.

The annual number of gun deaths in the United States is about 36,400, and nearly two-thirds of those deaths were suicides, according to CDC statistics averaged over the five year period from 2013 to 2017, reported by Everytown Research. Depression, among other psychological factors, greatly contribute to suicide deaths; but politicians have prioritized eliminating the method of firearm deaths over the main cause.

“There’s not enough emphasis on the core issue, and the core issue, in my opinion, is not the gun; it’s the person who’s pulling the trigger,” said Licensed Clinical Social Worker Donna Marino in an interview with NTD News. “When you disarm a law abiding citizen who does not have a mental health issue, then you’re not addressing the problem.”

Tighter gun control laws have been passed in several states, including New Mexico, where a federal background check is now required for most gun purchases. However, the majority of convicted criminals do not obtain their firearms from a licensed gun retailer or gun show.

In an estimated group of 287,400 prisoners, 43 percent obtained their firearm from the black market, 6 percent stole it, and 7 percent obtained it at the scene, according to the United States Department of Justice (pdf). Only 7 percent obtained the weapon through a licensed firearm dealer, and most of the rest obtained the firearm as a gift or from a family member.

The Person Behind the Gun

Marino said that many factors contribute to the gun violence problem in America. This may include a flawed background check system and undisclosed medical information at the time of a firearm purchase, such as mental health issues.

The FBI released a study in 2018 where 63 active shooters were examined—meaning the shooter used his firearm in a public space. Twenty-five percent were diagnosed with a mental disorder and 62 percent suffered from mental health stressors. Mental health stressors are defined by the FBI as depression, paranoia, and anxiety; the FBI does not classify stressors as mental illnesses, though organizations like the American Psychiatric Association do.

“Anybody who can inflict harm on someone, and is willing to shoot people, and harm people—whatever the extent of that may be—is not stable,” said Marino.

Suicide Rate and Medical Treatment

Suicide is the tenth highest cause of death in the United States, accounting for over 47,000 deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over 50 percent of people who committed suicide were diagnosed with depression. With such a large mental health problem in the United States, where is the treatment?

“It’s a complex issue, because you cannot mandate someone for treatment unless it’s an acute psychiatric emergency,” said Marino. “Apart from that extreme, the average person needs to recognize that they have a problem.”

Marino said if the person cannot recognize the problem, nothing can be done until the case intensifies, leading to the involvement of emergency medical services or law enforcement. Approximately 10 percent of prisoners suffer from a severe mental illness in the United States, according to Mental Illness Policy.

President Works to Lower Suicide Rate

United States veterans comprise a part of firearm-related suicides. Dr. Joseph Simonetti of Denver Veterans Affairs told Reuters: “On average, about 20 veterans die every day by suicide and about two-thirds of those suicides are firearm-related.” President Trump signed an executive order addressing the problem on March 5.

“To every veteran I want you to know that you have an entire nation of more than 300 million people behind you,” said the president. “You will never ever be forgotten; we are with you all the way, I think you know that.”

The executive order created a task force that will develop a public health roadmap within a year that will lower the rate of veteran suicides. The task force will also ask Congress for grants that will be used for community services for veterans.