Tom Gabor – Blaming Mass Shootings on Mental Health Issues Alone is Disgraceful.


Just one month after the worst mass shooting in modern American history in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in a place of worship occurred at The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, killed 26 people and wounded 20 others on Sunday with an AR-556 assault rifle.

texasPresident Donald Trump condemned the act as “evil,” and called it “a mental health problem,” not a “guns situation.” However, a study of 133 mass shootings has shown that, as in the Texas attack, most mass shootings have a domestic violence link, while in just 11% of the incidents were concerns about the mental health of the shooter brought to the attention of a medical practitioner, legal authority, or school official. That study also showed that when assault weapons or high-capacity magazines were used, an average of eight more people were shot, indicating the pivotal role of the weapon in increasing the carnage. Therefore, the prevalence of high-powered weapons in the U.S. is an enormous contributing factor to the growing frequency and lethality of mass shootings. The call to address the nation’s mental health issues is a familiar dodge of those seeking to avoid a discussion of gun policy.

If the president truly believes mass shootings are a mental health issue, why did his administration block the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database? These are individuals on disability support who suffer from severe mental illnesses. President Obama had introduced an administrative rule to keep people with severe mental illnesses from purchasing guns, and Trump, demonstrating perhaps his support for the gun lobby’s agenda, signed a measure to overturn this policy.

The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but over a third of the mass shootings. Rates of mental illness, while somewhat higher than other countries, fail to account for the enormous gap in the number of mass shootings between the U.S. and other advanced nations. Countries such as the U.K., Germany, and Japan have at most a few dozen gun homicides, and no more than one or two mass shootings per year. By contrast, the U.S. already has had more than 300 mass shootings this year. Therefore, the gap in mass shootings is too great to be explained by more modest differences in the rates of mental illness.

Psychiatrist Richard Friedman writes that psychiatry cannot protect us from mass murderers. He states that while many mass shooters have a severe personality or psychotic disorder, they often avoid the mental health system altogether, as they are not interested in treatment and do not see themselves as ill. He adds that it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict which individuals will become violent. While millions of Americans have a mental disorder or a serious anger management issue, just an infinitesimal fraction will commit these atrocities. Friedman argues that the focus should not be on detecting mass killers in advance, but on the availability of lethal weapons. He points to Australia, a country that has virtually eliminated mass shootings since automatic and semiautomatic long guns were banned.

A greater propensity toward violence also does not explain the disproportionate number of these massacres in the U.S. International crime surveys show that the U.S. is in the middle of the pack with regard to violence in general. But it’s an outlier in lethal violence. This finding suggests that it is the greater prevalence of lethal weapons in the U.S. that leads more altercations to escalate to homicides.


Those seeking reform are likely to be frustrated once again by the absence of bold national legislation, such as that adopted by Australia. We have a president who believes that mass shootings are not a “guns situation,” and a Republican-dominated Congress that has no intention of defying the gun lobby. Recent polling shows that gun rights advocates are more likely to be single-issue voters who are politically active than are those who favor reform. Partisan gerrymandering has also contributed to a more polarized political environment in which representatives in Republican-controlled districts resist gun policy changes, fearing that more conservative candidates, backed by the gun lobby, will challenge them in the primaries.

In this environment, the disgraceful avoidance of this issue by lawmakers is likely to persist, and one wonders what type or level of atrocity will stimulate bold action on their part. When will our elected representatives place a higher value on the lives of their fellow citizens than on weapons of war designed for one purpose: to kill the largest number of people as quickly as possible?

Tom Gabor is a criminologist, sociologist, and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America.



28 thoughts on “Tom Gabor – Blaming Mass Shootings on Mental Health Issues Alone is Disgraceful.

  1. Non mass shootings are down meanwhile by fifty percent even as millions of ARs and hundreds of millions of thirty round mags are added. But you want to base a huge and invasive policy change on the actions of a tiny handful of psycjos. In the process make me and everyone I know become a newly minted law bresker. For nothing of measursble value, basically.

    • Hman, Gun deaths are in fact up in the country and I would argue that one mass shooting a day is not acceptable. This is more than a “handful of psychos.” The death toll and the impact of these slaughters on our society will accumulate if these shootings continue unabated.

  2. The post talks about assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But fails to define those terms. It would be helpful if the definition of “assault weapon” and “high-capacity magazines” we’re given.
    Also what is “most mass shootings have a domestic violence link?” Is it the 57% mentioned on page 4 of the report published by Every Town For Gun Safety?s
    Nothing is more intimidating than numbers, especially if they are smartly placed next to graphs and drawings of homes and children. Say it with a chart, and the claims must be real.

    • Alan, the link with domestic violence in many cases is well known. I don’t think we should attack the credibility of a group’s research unless there is a sound basis for it. If you have a reason to doubt the methodology or conclusions of that study, then let’s discuss it. While the definition of assault weapons, like most things, is not etched in stone, they have certain features that distinguish them from more conventional weapons–folding stocks, pistol and fore grips, etc.

      • Tom, sorry but I didn’t know asking a question puts me in the category of “attacking the credibility” of a groups research.
        As for defining terms, I believe it’s critical to know definitions of terms so you have no misunderstandings. In defining “assault weapons” you say they have certain features that distinguish them from more conventional weapons. What are those features? What is a conventional weapon? When one mentions “assault weapon” are they including assault rifle? What about high-capacity magazines. What are they?
        Tom, I’m just asking questions, not attacking credibility.

      • Alan, your question is a fair one. The definition has to be carefully crafted to distinguish conventional firearms designed for sports shooting and protection as opposed to those that have no such uses and can be equipped with magazines that allow one to produce dozens of casualties in a matter of a few minutes. I’ll leave that definition to the gunsmiths and the lawyers; however, Mike has shown that there is a clear difference between military-style firearms and those designed for more conventional pursuits.

  3. The main issue with so called ARs is their semiautomatic action, high rate of fire, and a large ammo source such as a large external magazine so you can keep on shooting as long as something in the church is moving. Nice James Fallows article sourced in The Atlantic about the prototype US version. Link below. A lot of the other stuff including the plastic stock, color of the gun, or whether it can mount a flash suppressor or “chainsaw bayonet” (or whatever it is that bothers Sen. Feinstein) is irrelevant to what we are talking about with mass shootings. Ask Anders Breivik.

    Just for grins, I put five rounds into my old fashioned wood stock Mini-14 20 rd magazine and fired them off as fast as I could. About 1.5-2 seconds and all within about 12×18 inches at 75 yards. Was just wondering. I don’t know what the max rate of fire is for the Mini, which is built off of an M1 action, but apparently it is quite fast and not that hard to control. Even without the pistol grip.

    My problem, which I expressed on my own blog, is that banning ARs is being suggested half a century after the horses left the barn. If there is a middle road such as modifying the 1934 NFA to treat them somewhere between full auto rifles and mundane rifles, we should explore it as I doubt seriously we will ever ban these things. It is probably too late and as Adam Winkler has said, attempting to ban the most popular rifle in the US is probably not worth the political land war in Asia that would result.

    • Thank you, Khal. These are all legitimate points and concerns. Psychologists tell us there is no profile of the mass shooter and, hence,we cannot predict who among millions of Americans with mental health issues or anger issues will be the next perpetrator. The other option is to focus on the weapons that are involved in the most horrific shootings. For me, doing nothing is not an option as the consequences of the path we are on are dire in terms of lives lost, the quality of our lives, our freedoms, financial costs, etc. To Alan’s point, carefully crafting a definition of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, followed by a long-term approach involving a national buyback can cut down on the supply of these weapons, raise their price, and make them less accessible to the average person. This is a long-term project but they are the only consistent feature in the highest casualty mass shootings. Maybe we need to counter the gun lobby’s propaganda and attach a stigma to owning these weapons as has been done through public service campaigns relating to impaired driving, for example.

      • “…raise their price, and make them less accessible to the average person.” Sounds like discrimination.

        raise their price, and make them less accessible to the average person

      • Individual states have heavily restricted ARs or I think, in the case of MD, banned them. I doubt that would happen on a national level without a sea change in politics. With the next Trump SCOTUS appointment those state laws might be in play. Jonah Goldberg has suggested a Dem assault on gun owners could result in even more red v blue polarization.

        I was reading recently, maybe here, that there are about half a million fully automatic weapons legally owned vs. probably 300 million guns of all types. This is because the Feds put strict requirements on ownership before they became common as hen’s teeth. That did not happen with ARs. So perhaps some sort of retrospective way to regulate but not attempt to confiscate these things could be discussed, such as instituting screening requirements similar to what we in NM do for concealed carry. That is one point where I found that both sides agree—CHL holders have much lower rates of getting photographed by the police with a number in front of them than the average public.

        You hardly ever hear of tommy guns being used in crimes. Because only true, die-had gun nuts own them. Anyone with greenbacks in their wallet who is not on the no-buy list (and the TX shooter was not on the no buy list because the Air Farce screwed up) can buy a 556 or their choice of weapon. I saw ads in yesterday’s paper for Bushmasters starting at about seven hundred bucks. Vast majority never get implicated in crime but as you and I probably agree, it only takes one…..and we have had quite a few lately (Pulse, Vegas, now this) to question what we are doing.

  4. Attach a stigma… sure, go for it. This is America, the land of the first amendment. But most of what I hear brings to mind a no knock raid at 4 am if I choose to go against this stigma.

  5. Regarding “Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database? These are individuals on disability support who suffer from severe mental illnesses.”….you have grossly distorted this to be misleading… per the WaPo article “recipients incapable of managing their own finances”….includes a number of people who are not mentally ill, but who are not capable of managing their business affairs.

  6. Gun rights advocates really only get testy when the issue is some kind of registration scheme for weapons themselves. Regulating who might own something is not a issue. But then GVP advocates always always want to start with registration. Why trust is in short supply here.

    • I think only a few of the ARs in New York State have been registered. There is a strong sense among the gun community that registration can presage confiscation when a state then decides that a type of gun is to be banned. To build any sort of trust, which as you say is in short supply, would mean taking certain ideas off of the table. Short of that, brute force applies.

    • Brute force… how does the bulk of serving LE or sharp end of the military come down on this issue,, Rhetorical question only.

      • I don’t know about the military, but almost all of the county sheriffs in NM and NYS came down against stuff like the SAFE Act and the background check bill that Everytown wrote out this way. Some city chiefs, from my read, tend to be more in favor of gun laws because they get the muzzle end more often than not.

        And I misused “hen’s teeth” earlier.

  7. Tom,
    If there really was a clear difference between military SA rifles and a convential kind, why would any designer ever had specified the lameness and incapacity of the non military type from the beginning. And why do full on military rifles from countries around the world vary so much in terms of design details that are sometimes deemed adequate for declaring what is Okay for civilians vs a felony. They hardly all work like an A R and they have had 50 years to copy it if it were singularly efficient at putting lead down range.

    • Hman, I honestly cannot tell you what designers of early forms of SA rifles had in mind. What I do know is that various forms of military-style weapons like the AR-15 are being selected by perpetrators of the most heinous acts, perhaps due to a combination of features that enable them to commit mass killings with the largest casualties and fatalities. Most of these individuals do not survive; hence, post-mortems involving interviews that would tell us why they selected the weapons they have cannot be conducted. Rather than searching for the perfect definition of an assault weapon, we may need to work backwards and identify weapons with those features that are especially attractive to these perpetrators and consider banning or restricting them. Just an idea.

  8. I think the gun community needs to help identify a way to keep these ARs out of the hands of lunatics, even if it makes it very difficult for any of us to own one. At some point, the number of mass shootings will make these things toxic to even Republicans.

  9. Tom
    The undeniable appeal of the AR platform to the evil people who do these things is that using one virtually assures more press coverage. Which. afterall, is usually the main goal.
    Plus, they look scarier than older wood stock items. Wood stocks remind most people of furniture and home.
    An AR sends a different vibe.
    Just mho.

  10. When I read, talk with, or listen to discussions I like to know the definitions of the words being used. A good example is the definition of an “assault weapon.” As I’ve read “Mikethegunguy” blog, as well as other, I’ve heard numerous different definitions. Over the years, I believe, Mike has had several different definitions of what is an “assault weapon.” Over the years (and there have been many years) that I’ve read and heard discussions about violence with a gun (assault-type firearm) I have come to the conclusion that most people are referring to a firearm that is functionally identical though less powerful than hunting rifles, but they are cosmetically similar to military guns. So, going with that definition I’ve found “assault weapons” in comparison with other type of weapons used in crimes are not as big as a problem as one might think. Looking at research in police reports showing incidents with guns:
    For California: Los Angeles: In 1998, of 538 documented gun incidents, only on (0.2%) involved an “assault weapon.” San Francisco: In 1998, only 2.2% of confiscated weapons were “assault weapons.” San Diego: Between 1988 and 1990, only 0.3% of confiscated weapons were “assault weapons.” S.C. Helsley, a former Assistant Director of DOJ Investigation and Enforcement Branch, in California is quoted as saying “I surveyed the firearms used in violent crimes…assault-type firearms were the least of our worries.” I believe that if one looks at the rest of the country you will find similar results of assault-type firearms being confiscated as well as being used in crimes. Check with your own local police agency and ask them how many guns they have confiscated and of those how many are assault-type firearms.

    Guns are part and have been part of America since Christopher Columbus in 1492. They will continue to be part of America for many more hundreds of years. It is reported that there are over 20,000 gun laws already on the books. I would propose a good place to start in reducing violence with a gun is enforcing those 20,000 laws. Stop plea bargaining to a lesser crime.

    • Thank you, Alan, Hman, Khal, and others for weighing in. I’ll leave it to Mike and others to jump in with regard to the definitional issues. I would just add that, yes, assault-type weapons account for a small fraction of gun crimes but they are disproportionately involved in large-scale mass shootings that have a far greater physical, social, psychological, and economic impact than conventional crimes. Entire towns are shattered by these incidents. As for being part of our history, nobody would have envisioned the firearms that exist today during the framing of the Bill of Rights. Gun regulation during the Revolutionary Period and the settlement of the West was in fact quite stringent. Most of the states banned gun carrying in the 1800s. According to historians, we are far more permissive today with regard to our gun laws.

      • In other words, town equals bar. In the west in the 19th century.
        Outside of towns, gun regulation was a pretty silly notion because nothing else was regulated because, generally speaking, there no Cops within a two day ride.

  11. Tom
    The main concern of gun law writing in the old days was almost always the nexus between carrying guns and alcohol. Especially in the old west.

    Winkler describes this, although indirectly.
    Today, one sees the same concern even in gun permissive states. Many states allowing C C also have a zero blood alcohol requirement for compliance.

    • Hman, In the 1800s, carrying concealed weapons, in and of itself, was banned in most states as it was viewed to be a threat to public safety. Regardless of the nexus, it was believed that gun carrying was a harmful and even “evil” practice (e.g., the Alabama law of 1839).

      • Tom
        Sure, gun laws have been all over the place over time here and in other countries. Imho, they are almost always expressions of concern re race, social class, etc. rather than public safety per se. Regardless of what the official version says. For example, in southern states before legal C C, in my experiencr, prosecution of otherwise law abiding white folks rarely hspprned. But that was not whom the gun laws written in the post civil war period were meant to control. This was never a secret.
        I am not a marywana person, but I can relate to their long drive to delink their private hobby with invasive law enforcement. Those laws began and mostly remained about everything except keeping people sobrr. It was mainly a matter of criminalizing what your target enjoyd.
        Fair or not, this how gun people feel about criminalizing their favorite firearms … while not banning a host of equally lethal types.
        Drinking to a coma state is fine, puffing on a joint and you lose all of your civil rights.
        In this field, as I said, trust is in short supply.
        Don’t shoot the messenger
        The same with gun laws and keeping people safe.

  12. In other words, town equals bar. In the west in the 19th century.
    Outside of towns, gun regulation was a pretty silly notion because nothing else was regulated because, generally speaking, there no Cops within a two day ride.

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