Why We're Wrong About Mass Shooters

Why We're Wrong About Mass Shooters

Why you should care

Because murderers may overall be saner than anyone could be comfortable acknowledging.

It happens after almost every mass shooting: co-workers, neighbors and former second-grade classmates all reflect on how the culprit always did seem a little “off.” Meaning is read into moments that previously were nothing more than happenstance, while talking heads on the 5 o’clock news lament the failings of America’s mental health system. New research, however, suggests we should be looking elsewhere for answers.

Only 12 percent of violent crimes committed by repeat offenders are preceded by psychosis.

“Barking up the tree of mental illness is the wrong place to look for an answer to gun violence,” says Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia psychiatry professor who contributed to the study. Researchers analyzed data from the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment, which followed more than 1,000 violent criminals for a year after they were released from incarceration, interviewing them every 10 weeks and documenting any symptoms of psychosis that popped up before another violent episode. What the researchers found? The link between mental illness and dangerous outbursts is weak. And when mentally unwell people do commit violence, it’s often not because of their condition.

But after a horrific crime, society naturally wants to make sense of it and label the perpetrators as “other than.” “After they know you killed people, any quirk becomes evidence of mental illness,” says Joel Dvoskin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. “It’s comforting to think, ‘That’s not me.’ ” In fact, most people murder out of anger, revenge, jealousy or drunkenness. It’s often a perfect storm of despair; the person was laid off, his wife left, he drank too much and he has access to a gun. Anti-social behavior, substance abuse, poverty and association with a criminal group are all much better predictors of dangerous behavior than insanity, Dvoskin says.

This study has its limitations of course. It’s impossible to have a control group with such experiments. And all of the data is self-reported, which can be unreliable. Also, researchers studied only men; it’s possible women lash out for different reasons.

It’s tempting to point to health care as a solution. But mending the systemic societal ills that lead to violence, such as poverty and marginalization, is more complex. Putting someone on meds won’t necessarily make us any safer (though experts say training first responders to diffuse precarious situations could help). Instead, the next time you’re trying to make sense of senseless violence, think about this: “It’s people who are angry, fearful and in despair who we should be afraid of, but that’s millions of people and most will never shoot anybody,” Dvoskin says. “If you want to be safe, quit smoking and wear your seat belt.”

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