“It Happens Everywhere”: Facing America’s Gun Violence Epidemic

What is driving the epidemic of gun violence racking the United States?

December 9, 2015

In the past year, the United States has averaged more than one mass shooting per day. In the past few weeks alone, more than fifteen lives were lost in violent events that generated  massive national coverage. Even here in Iowa, a shooting at the Coral Ridge Mall claimed one life last June.

“Everybody always says they never thought it would happen ‘here.’ Well, where’s it supposed to happen?” John Knutson, retired professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, said. “It happens everywhere.”

In the wake of these shootings, many have cited mental health illness and the need for reform in the United States’ mental health care system as the main cause of this violence. Many citizens who don’t want to see guns made illegal have made the argument that the people are the problem, rather than the guns.

“I think I’ve always [thought] that it’s mental health that’s the problem,” Sadie Hobbs ‘17 said.

Mental health was at the core of President Obama’s proposed 2013 plan to prevent future mass shooting tragedies. Among universal background checks, strong bans on assault weapons, and new restrictions on ammunition and magazines, this reform included: Sending letters to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities, providing incentives for schools to hire school resource officers, launching a national dialogue on mental health, and directing the Centers for Disease Control (or CDC) to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

However, Knutson believes these reforms don’t follow the research on the association between psychopathology-psychiatric diagnoses- and gun violence.

There are millions of people who have psychiatric diagnoses. It’s not the guy who’s walking down the street mumbling, it’s not people who don’t look like us; it’s people in our homes.

— John Knutson

“The problem is that the mass media and some political figures use mental illness in a non-specific, generic fashion,” Knutson said. “There are millions of people who have psychiatric diagnoses. It’s not the guy who’s walking down the street mumbling, it’s not people who don’t look like us; it’s people in our homes. This is the problem: We’re building a model of gun danger based on misinformation.”

According to experts cited by CBS News, mentally ill people cause less than five percent of violent crimes, and are much more likely to be the victims of these crimes. That said, shooters likely have some kind of trauma going on in their lives. Even if they aren’t labeled as ‘mentally ill’, they are not likely to be mentally stable either.

“Most of the folks with a psychiatric diagnosis don’t commit any dangerous acts,” Knutson said. “You’re as safe sitting in a ward of schizophrenic patients as you are anywhere in the world. They’re not necessarily dangerous. But for people who don’t actively study risk and dangerousness, they make the attribution to psychopathology.”

In fact, mentally ill people are much more dangerous to themselves than to others when armed with guns: More than 60 percent of gun deaths in the United States are the result of suicides, not homicides, according to an October article in the New York Times.

However, gun homicides tend to get more news coverage than suicides. Knutson blames the relationship often shown in the media between gun violence and mental illness for public misperceptions of the problem.

“What happens is you have these celebrated cases [of gun violence]. You can identify cases of psychopathology and celebrated cases of shootings, and then you can make the attribution that this occurred because of the psychopathology,” Knutson said. “The mass media hasn’t done us any favors, because they let people make these pronouncements.”

Some argue that another way the media has worsened these situations is by providing any form of identification or recognition of the shooter. Abby Dickson ‘16 agrees that the spotlight the media provides by covering these events may be causing more harm than good.

“Personally I like to know about things,” she said. “I would rather these stories be covered, but I can see how it’s a bad thing to have this much publicity about shootings because some people decide to do it for attention, or to get their causes noticed. For example the planned parenthood guy, he was trying to draw attention to his views on abortion.”

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While an individual with a mental illness may commit a violent crime, calculations of risk must consider numerous factors. For this reason, it becomes difficult for mental health professionals to distinguish between real and idle threats. This ambiguity greatly impacts the effectiveness of their duty to warn.

“I think there’s evidence that the guy that did the shooting in Aurora evidenced psychopathology. But there are a lot of people who could merit a similar diagnosis who will never harm anybody,” Knutson said. “Those things are so multidetermined.”

Dickson recognizes the multiple factors associated with determining violence risk.

“I can see both sides because mental health is a huge problem in America right now, and it’s not really being addressed,” Dickson said. “That is not super connected to gun control-it is a little bit, but not as much as some people are stressing. Even in schools, [mental health] is huge problem.”

In the ‘60s, the federal government, in conference with a large number of states, constructed a community mental health model that was built upon the assumption that breakthrough medications would solve the problem of serious mental illness. The government also believed it disadvantageous to patients and their families to shuttle to hospitals that were remote from their homes.

To serve both purposes, the government built many state hospitals. The expectation was outpatient and brief inpatient mental health services through community mental health systems. However, the drugs did not live up to expectations, as only some mental health problems were solved. Furthermore, the funding base for the community mental health initiative was eroded by the costs associated with the Vietnam war, and economic and political changes that occurred. The state mental hospitals were also not particularly effective, according to Knutson.

Over the last 50 years, there’s been a decline in the number of inpatient facilities for people with serious psychopathology. In Iowa, Governor Terry Branstad chose to close Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, two out of four Iowa state institutions this year. Knutson believes this is symptomatic of an effort to allocate resources to psychopathology, a goal likened by the creators of the early 20th century mental health care structure in the United States.

“I think Iowa closing those facilities in the absence of providing resources for alternatives is a mistake,” Knutson said. “I don’t think we’re doing a good job. Does that mean that we’re more likely to get shot in Iowa? No, because those folks weren’t going to be shooting us anyway.”

Whether or not mental health is at the heart of the problem, Hobbs is simply concerned about her school’s safety.

“With all of the school shootings that have been going on, it is scary to think that the main doors aren’t locked and someone could just walk in,” Hobbs said. “It would be safer to have a guard or someone here. Even though an incident like that has never happened here, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

It would be safer to have a guard or someone here. Even though an incident like that has never happened here, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

— Sadie Hobbs '17

Hobbs believes in more regulations and stricter background searches for those seeking to own a gun, and Dickson shares the same view. Noting that however the laws may be changed, they must make a positive difference in the gun violence death rates—over 32,000 deaths per year according to Forbes—in the United States to be worth installing.

“There should be stricter gun control,” Dickson said. “I don’t know how people should implement that, but there needs to be less of what we’ve been seeing.”

Access to guns increases the risk of gun violence. Knutson notes that Paris—the site of the recent terrorist attacks—is the safest of any metropolitan area comparable in size in the US because of their gun control laws. He cites Iowa City as an example of the result of easier access to guns in the nation. The problem in the United States, Knutson believes, is that anyone has access to a gun.

“That guy that shot the woman in the Coral Ridge mall: It’s prototypical—he legally had a gun. Now, if he didn’t have a gun, if he snapped, he might of done something egregious and stupid, but she might still be here,” Knutson said. “It’s the ready access to firearms under circumstances of normal provocation—that’s a bigger problem than mental illness.”

Hobbs was in the Coral Ridge Mall movie theater when a shooting occurred over the summer. An armed man with a valid license to carry a weapon shot and killed his ex-girlfriend in the parking lot near the food court.

“I remember someone who worked at the theater came in and said that there was an emergency and we needed to evacuate the mall,” she said. “My first thoughts were that there was either a bomb threat at the mall, or a shooting was happening in a different theater.”

Looking back on that day, Hobbs recalls the safety precautions that were taken to handle the situation in the most safe and efficient way. She feels that the security and employees at the mall were on top of things to the best of their abilities.

It’s not mental illness that’s our problem, it’s access to guns and being afraid of strangers, getting mad at family members, doing dumb things, and drinking.

— Knutson

“The safety policy [said] just to exit the mall and get in your car and go home. I know that when we exited the movie theater we saw that the mall was completely empty, so I think we were some of the last people to exit. I’m not exactly sure how that worked, but I heard that there were swarms of people running outside,” she said. “We were really confused about what was going on, so we kind of asked around. I definitely think it would be hard to get an organized group out of the mall when you hear gun shots.”

A constellation of factors can provoke someone not diagnosed with a mental illness to shoot. They may be suddenly angered, overestimating risk, or fearing strangers and people who are different from them. However, the gun control conversation becomes more complicated in determining  the equal distribution of rights among the population. Knutson considers the proposal that no mentally unhealthy person have access to a gun.

“In terms of a civil liberties question, is it better to restrict access to a tool, or is it better to restrict the civil liberties of people on the basis of fallible predictions?”

Knutson believes an effective future in combating the United States’ gun violence issue lies in formatting laws based on factors which raise the base rate for gun violence of the common person. This could be family problems, domestic altercations, jealousy, or any argument that may provoke negative emotion.

“People do dumb things when they’re really fearful. They’re afraid, so they grab the gun and shoot, and… It was a person knocking on the door to ask for directions,” he said. “It’s not mental illness that’s our problem, it’s access to guns and being afraid of strangers, getting mad at family members, doing dumb things, and drinking.”

“Priors” can also be used to predict future behavior, Knutson says.

“Your behavior today predicts your behavior down the road. If you shoot at a neighbor’s dog, I see you’ve got guns, I see you using them inappropriately by shooting them in town, and then that changes the base rate.”

These risk factors, Knutson says, which are much more based on the people and the circumstances than on mental illness, are much more likely to predict risk than mental illness. Risk, he says, is not predicted generically from psychopathology.

Dickson has voiced that she would like to see more be done to prevent violent crime besides taking away the weapon.

“I think more education in schools about mental health is important. I know we have a mental health club. I would like that to be more widely known and used, even just having more resources for everyone is good,” Dickson said.

Mixed perceptions may be the effect of a decision made 20 years ago, when Republicans prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from doing research on gun violence. Without this restriction, the CDC could have treated gun violence as a public health problem and potentially achieved a deeper understanding of its nature.

One observable phenomenon has emerged, despite the loss of the opportunity for research. According to the Mother Jones website, vigilante action by an armed civilian has never successfully stopped deadly gun violence. In fact, in cases when armed armed civilians attempted to intervene, those civilians not only failed to stop the shooter but often were also fatally wounded or killed. Additionally, as America becomes increasingly equipped with firearms which are now easier to carrier in public places, the rate of mass shootings has increased.

No matter the causes of gun violence, thousands are impacted both directly and indirectly by these tragedies: According to a UC Davis medical school report, about 60-70,000 thousand of the injured have enduring mental health problems due to the trauma of the shooting.

“Then you have family members of people who were shot,” Knutson said. “We don’t have any idea how much trauma and adverse experiences they’ve had. And then you have all of the people who aren’t family members but are friends, and associates, and people that have to pick up the pieces,” he said. “Those numbers happen every year.”

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