Gun Crazy? No Easy Explanations for Mass Shootings

Opponents of gun control argue that better attention to mentally troubled individuals will do more to prevent mass shootings than restricting access to firearms to the general population. But our columnist argues that there is little evidence supporting mental illness as a critical factor in acts of tragic violence.

To the rest of the world and even to many US citizens, gun ownership in America seems to be out of hand. About one-third of Americans own a gun, with another 10 percent reporting they live in a home with guns. It’s believed that there are enough guns for every American to have one, so that means many own more than one.

How many guns do you need? One to protect your home, maybe one to carry with you for self-defense. If you’re a hunter or sports shooter, two or three long guns might seem reasonable, especially if they are suited for different purposes.

According to a Pew Research survey in 2017, two-thirds of American gun-owners have at least two firearms, and 29 percent own five or more. Three percent own 17 apiece, according to one analysis of an unpublished study by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers.

The Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had even more, two dozen or so, with a dozen bump stocks. Half of those he amassed in a year. Do you need a gun a month? Should that be a red flag?

Not in the United States, home of the Second Amendment to the Constitution: the right to bear arms.

When a mass shooting takes place, Second Amendment defenders such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) say it’s not a problem of guns, but of mental illness. Psychologists point out that mental illness is a far better predictor of self-harm or victimization, not harm against others.

But what if the gun ownership, the gun love, is a sign of mental illness itself?

Is the multiple-gun owner a compulsive collector, a hoarder? Probably not.

One difference between a collector and a hoarder is that collectors are choosy. They take care of their collection, display it attractively, and take pride in showing it to others. A hoarder is less or not at all selective; he or she just crams the items into whatever cubbyhole is available, and piles them in sinks, bathtubs and other spaces that serve another purpose but can no longer be used for that purpose. (One example: a book collector displays his books in a bookcase; a book hoarder piles them in his bathtub.)

By this definition, most firearm collectors are not hoarders. I don’t know of any gun enthusiasts who throw their weapons in a pile or in a sink. Most keep them clean, oiled, polished and either displayed on a rack or kept in a gun safe.

What if they have enough ammunition for an army? Not necessarily.

Some of these people do seem paranoid, afraid of jack-booted government thugs or a civilization-ending natural disaster. One site —that says you need at least 2,000 rounds of ammunition per caliber of firearm: 1,000 with which to practice, and 1,000 for when (not if) the national power grid goes down—warns that 200 million Americans will die when (not if) the nationwide power grid goes down.

But the nonpartisan firearm information site The Trace, no great fan of the NRA, explains that there can be perfectly reasonable reasons to “hoard” ammo for reasons of supply and price, not because it’s preparation for a mass shooting or rebellion.

Are gun enthusiasts actually mentally ill? Not according to Psychiatry Online, which says the idea that gun violence and mental illness are closely linked is a myth.

“It should be noted that there is no established causality between mental illness and gun violence,” DJ Schuette, a self-described “responsible gun owner “who admits to suffering from depression and anxiety, told The Marshal Project.

Schuette keeps his gun in a gun safe to which only his wife has access. He’s not worried that he’ll harm others so much as that he might take his own life, which is a far more common outcome. Of the approximately 37,000 US gun deaths in 2016, 22,000 were suicides. Fewer guns would make those deaths less likely because suicide attempts by other means—drowning, hanging, poison, wrist-cutting—are not as often successful.

Despite the lobbying by the NRA, other “Second Amendment Firsters” and politicians, mental illness is not a good predictor of whether someone will engage in violence with guns. It happens, but is rare. To the extent that modern psychiatry and neurology can determine (often post-mortem), most shooters—even mass shooters—are not mentally ill.

“The large majority of people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression are not inclined to be violent,” according to a study by Jeffrey W. Swanson. Even when they do commit acts of violence, it is is more likely to the result of some other factor such as substance abuse.

Take Stephen Paddock. A thorough autopsy found nothing to suggest he was mentally ill due to a brain tumor or stroke or early onset dementia, although “an abnormally high number of tiny deposits” that are sometimes associated with neurological disease were found scattered on the surface of his brain.

However, in an article earlier this month (at least in part hawking his own 2007 book on the subject), Grant Duwe wrote, “peer-reviewed research has shown that individuals with major mental disorders (those that substantially interfere with life activities) are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they abuse drugs. … [At] least 59 percent  of the 185 public mass shootings that took place in the United States from 1900 through 2017 were carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack.”

Maybe the difference in the two opinions is that Duwe qualifies his conclusion to include “demonstrated signs” of mental illness, which seems a little vague. The results of at least one survey concluded that “half of all Americans will qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point in their lives, while a quarter of them do in any given year.”

Not even all gun enthusiasts like the idea of blanket mental illness restrictions on gun ownership. These are better predictors, according to Dr. Renee Binder, former president of the American Psychiatric Association. A history of drug or alcohol abuse is “stronger indicator of risk” than mental illness, he said. Though he added that, like mental illness, substance abuse is more associated with being a victim of gun violence than a perpetrator.

In an essay, Brandon Smith questions ” WHO gets to decide who is mentally ill and why they are mentally ill? Will this be done by a jury of our peers? Or, by an unaccountable and faceless bureaucracy? Will the guidelines for mental illness be strict and specific, or will they be broad and wide open to interpretation?

“Once a person has been labeled mentally defective, will they have the ability to appeal the decision, or will the label haunt them for the rest of their lives?”

At the same time, Smith suggests that psychotropic pharmaceuticals are the cause of mass shootings, because “at least 35 school shootings and/or school-related acts of violence have been committed by those taking or withdrawing from psychiatric drugs” and “psychotropic drugs are proven to influence violent and even homicidal behavior in people.”

Without case studies detailing the shooters’ pre-drug-use behavior, it is just as likely that an underlying mental illness that was inadequately medicated led to the shootings.

Paddock was “withdrawing” from the anti-anxiety medicine Valium at the time of the shootings. His physician suspected he might have a bipolar disorder, but he refused to take antidepressants for it. More meds might have prevented this mass shooting.

If mental illness isn’t the cause, maybe it’s substance abuse? Alcohol, yes. Drugs, maybe a little, if the abuser also has a mental illness.

“Alcohol was a more important predictor of future violence than prior violence was,” according to Garen Wintemute, the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who conducted a longitudinal study which found that a gun owner convicted of a crime involving alcohol, most often driving under the influence,was almost 33 percent more likely to commit a violent or firearm-related crime.

If we deny guns to people with a mental illness, should we deny gun ownership to anyone with a DUI, too?

Of people who abuse alcohol or drugs, 39.1 percent also have a co-occurring or comorbid mental illness. Sometimes they may be trying to self-medicate the mental illness with alcohol or drugs. When that’s the case, rehab for substance abuse or mental illness alone is not sufficient, and treatment at dual diagnosis treatment centers is required.

The National Comorbidity Survey Replication survey estimated that more than 25 percent of a representative sample of 9,000 adults had a mental illness in one year. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School cited an even more alarming survey sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health between 2001 and 2003 that found 46 percent fit the American Psychiatric Association profile of at least one mental illness at some point in their lives.

Even if gun ownership isn’t a mental illness, gun ownership may correlate with tendencies towards anger and impulsivity. However, just over 10 percent of people who have guns in the home also have any pathological anger traits, as do 1.5 percent of those who carry guns.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy states that “Firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes, and individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence.”

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

Even that might be a bridge too far for Americans. While other nations—Australia, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom—have had some success with gun control, their solutions likely wouldn’t work in the US because of the Second Amendment, and the strong American belief that guns keep us safe and free.

If it’s not mental illness, drugs or the number of guns we possess, what is it? There are no easy answers. The cause of America’s gun violence problem may be in the American character. In some ways we still think we’re in the Wild West.

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.


The Question ‘Why?’ Looms Over Mass Shooters

Nikolas Cruz survived the Parkland, Fl., shooting, giving investigators a chance to probe his motive. A forensic tried to do that in the case of Aurora, Co., theater killer James Holmes.

Even as the attention to mass shootings fades, the mystery of motive lingers like an open, forgotten wound until the next shooting, the next cycle of grief, outrage and desperate search for answers, the Washington Post reports. In Parkland, Fl., investigators have an unusual opportunity to answer that question after a high school massacre left 17 dead, because the suspected shooter remains alive, a rarity in these kinds of mass shootings. Prosecutors said are seeking a death sentence for 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, saying the rampage “was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner.”

Cruz will be scrutinized in granular detail by detectives, lawyers and forensic psychiatrists. All of them will try to answer some form of this question: Why? “You want to do everything you can for the families, and that’s the question that is being asked. Why my son? Why my daughter? Why was this person ripped from me for this senseless act?” said Daniel Oates, Aurora, Co. police chief in 2012, when a shooter tossed tear-gas grenades into a movie theater and began firing indiscriminately into the fleeing crowd, killing 12. “We’re all human beings; we strive for explanation.” The Aurora case offers the best hints for what will come in Florida. Like Parkland’s shooter, the Aurora gunman, James Holmes, had no clear motive and showed signs of mental-health problems before his attack. In 2014, a court assigned forensic psychiatrist William Reid to meet with Holmes for a series of interviews. Reid probed Holmes on his childhood, his PhD studies and virtually every aspect of his life. Holmes said he had thought of killing others for months, even years before. He described feeling an aversion to other people. Not a murderous rage, but a cold, dismissive hate. He hated others, he explained, the way some people hate broccoli.


Why Wasn’t Officer’s Reaction Criticized in Orlando Shooting?

The school officer who didn’t intervene in the Florida high school massacre was called a coward but a police officer who remained outside at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub killing was called courageous. Why wasn’t the Orlando case scrutinized?

When the shooting began inside a Broward County high school last month, Deputy Scot Peterson remained outside rather than pursuing the gunman. Peterson was forced to retire and labeled a “coward” by President Trump. In 2016, when a gunman started shooting inside the Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, police detective Adam Gruler remained outside after firing at the shooter from the parking lot. Gruler was hailed as courageous by Police Chief John Mina and was a local congresswoman’s guest to Trump’s State of the Union speech in January. While there are many differences between the two mass shootings, they are similar in at least one significant way: Each had a uniformed officer on scene who did not enter a building as gunfire from an assault-style rifle could be heard, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The responses by politicians and law enforcement leaders to how officers reacted during the first deadly minutes of both massacres couldn’t be more different. Criminologist Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama who studies mass shootings, said there should have been more scrutiny over the first minutes of the Pulse shooting. “If the problems with the response to Pulse were national headlines two years ago, I think officers around the country could have learned that valuable lesson, and it may have led to different responses and more lives being saved at Parkland and elsewhere,” he said. In Parkland, the school resource officer waited outside the classroom building for at least four minutes as 17 students and teachers were shot and killed, says Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. After the shooting, more than 70 Republican members of the House have called for Israel to resign, and Gov. Rick Scott called for the FBI director to step down, but no state or local officials have criticized the police response at Pulse.


Four Or Five Mass Shootings A Year-Not One A Day

Observations While there is an increase in mass shootings, it’s certainly not the one a day figures promoted by the media. Most of the data you hear and read about school crime and mass shootings is wrong. A “mass shooting” is defined as a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered […]

Observations While there is an increase in mass shootings, it’s certainly not the one a day figures promoted by the media. Most of the data you hear and read about school crime and mass shootings is wrong. A “mass shooting” is defined as a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered […]


Mass Shootings Linked to ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Problem

“Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken,” says comedian Michael Ian Black. Of 97 major mass shootings since 1982, only three were committed by women.

After 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 people at a Florida high school, comedian Michael Ian Black started a thread on Twitter that sparked a vitriolic debate about the role of gender in gun violence, reports USA Today. It began with the tweet, “Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken.” Black’s tweet has been liked nearly 65,000 times. “There is something going on with American men that is giving them the permission and space to commit violence,” he told NPR. “And one of the main things we focus on correctly is guns and mental health, but I think deeper than that is a problem, a crisis in masculinity.”

Feminists have been talking for decades about “toxic masculinity,” the things in culture from toys given to movies watched to messages parents consciously and unconsciously send that tell boys and men “being a real man” means repressing feelings and consistently demonstrating strength and dominance. A 2017 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found many norms around gender, what’s expected of boys and girls, become entrenched in adolescence and have negative impacts that carry into adulthood. Gun violence is disproportionately a male problem. Of the 97 mass shootings in which three or more victims died since 1982, only three were committed by women (one of those being the San Bernardino attack in which a man also participated). Men accounted for 86 percent of U.S. gun deaths, says the Kaiser Family Foundation.


Honesty, School And Mass Shootings

“..our best built certainties are but sand-houses and subject to damage from any wind of doubt that blows.” – “The Great Dark.” Mark Twain. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for […]

“..our best built certainties are but sand-houses and subject to damage from any wind of doubt that blows.” – “The Great Dark.” Mark Twain. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for […]


Las Vegas Shooter Paddock Took Anti-Anxiety Drug

An autopsy said Paddock was overweight and had bad teeth, but did not explain why he opened fire on a country music festival, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more.

Stephen Paddock was overweight, had anti-anxiety medication in his urine, and suffered from the usual wear and tear that comes with aging. The autopsy released Friday failed to help answer why Paddock chose to perch himself in the window of his 32nd-floor hotel room and kill 58 people while wounding hundreds in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the Los Angeles Times reports. He committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth. No suicide note or manifesto has been found.

The autopsy showed Paddock to be physically an unremarkable 64-year-old man. He was balding. His teeth were in poor condition. He suffered from hemorrhoids. The mystery of why he trained his guns on more than 20,000 people attending the Route 91 Harvest country music festival Oct. 1 has been confounding. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has said Paddock — a prolific high-stakes gambler with a particular affinity for video poker — had been on a losing streak in recent years, and Lombardo he believes the losses might’ve been a factor. The FBI has said it will release a report later this year on their findings. In a preliminary report issued by Lombardo last month, Paddock’s girlfriend, Marilou Danley, said he had become emotionally distant. She said he was germophobic. In that same report, his doctor said Paddock was afraid to take medication and may have been bipolar. He described Paddock’s behavior as “odd.”


CA College Killings Called Start of ‘Alt-Right’ Deaths

The Southern Poverty Law Center says Elliot Rodger, who killed six students in 2014, was the first of a series of 13 “alt-right killers” who have murdered 43 and injured 60 in the last four years. The perpetrators were all men, mostly under 30.

Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six students in the college town of Isla Vista Ca., in 2014, was the first “alt-right killer” to strike in recent years, says a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, quoted by the Los Angeles Times. The report counts Rodger among 13 alleged alt-right killers whose actions left 43 people dead and more than 60 injured since 2014. The alleged perpetrators were all men and most were under 30, the report says. The common thread: All participated in the “far-right ecosystem that defines the alt-right.” One of them made several references to Rodger before carrying out his attack last year.

William Edward Atchison used the pseudonym of “Elliot Rodger” online and praised the “supreme gentleman,” a moniker Rodger gave himself that became an alt-right meme. Atchison, 21, entered a New Mexico high school on Dec. 7 and killed two students before taking his own life. The list also includes Dylann Roof, the white supremacist convicted of fatally shooting nine black members of a Bible study class in South Carolina in 2015. The Law Center says the “timeline for alt-right killers began on May 23, 2014.” On that day, Rodger killed six people before shooting himself. The slayings started in an apartment he shared with two of his victims. Deputies said Rodger left his laptop on and open on his bed; on the screen was the YouTube page where Rodger had just uploaded his video titled “Retribution.” He also posted a 137-page autobiographical essay that laid out his motives and his racist beliefs. “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself,” Rodger wrote. “I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves.”


Ammunition Charge Filed in Las Vegas Massacre

Douglas Haig, the Arizona man who sold bullets to Las Vegas concert gunman Stephen Paddock, was charged with conspiracy to manufacture and sell armor-piercing ammunition without a license. Haig is the first person to be charged in connection with the Las Vegas shooting investigation.

The Arizona man who sold bullets to gunman Stephen Paddock was charged Friday with conspiracy to manufacture and sell armor-piercing ammunition without a license. Douglas Haig, 55, is the first person to be charged in connection with the Las Vegas shooting investigation, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. Paddock, 64, killed himself on Oct. 1 after fatally shooting 58 people and wounding hundreds more. According to a criminal complaint, the FBI determined that “two unfired cartridges bearing Haig’s fingerprints” were found in Paddock’s suite at the Mandalay Bay resort. The cartridges are classified as armor-piercing ammunition.

U.S. Magistrate Michelle Burns released Haig on his own recognizance. He must remove all weapons, ammunition and related equipment from his home by 5 p.m. Wednesday. During an earlier news conference, Marc Victor, an attorney for Haig, said his client sold ammunition to Paddock legally. He described Haig as a “law-abiding citizen” and a “proud American” who is “not a political activist of any kind.” He said he did not believe the tracer ammunition he sold to Paddock was used in the massacre.


Arizona Man Sold Ammo to Las Vegas Concert Shooter

Douglas Haig of Mesa, Az., said he sold more than 700 rounds of ammunition to Stephen Paddock but had no connection to him and had no idea what he was planning. “I couldn’t detect anything wrong with this guy,” he said of Paddock.

A Mesa, Az., man named in court documents as a “person of interest” during the investigation of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in Las Vegas said he had met the shooter one time and sold ammunition to him. Douglas Haig told The Associated Press that he had been contacted earlier by investigators in the case. “I am the guy who sold ammunition to Stephen Paddock,” Haig said. Police say Paddock was the gunman and killed himself as officers converged on him. A law enforcement official said Paddock bought 1,000 rounds of tracer ammunition from a private seller he met at a Phoenix gun show. Haig owns Specialized Military Ammunition LLC. The company’s website says it sold tracer and incendiary ammunition but is now “closed indefinitely.”

Haig told “CBS This Morning” that he sold more than 700 rounds of ammunition to Paddock but had no connection to the man and had no idea what he was planning. “I couldn’t detect anything wrong with this guy,” he said of Paddock. “He told me exactly what he wanted. I handed him a box with the ammunition in it, and he paid me and he left.” After the shooting, “I was horrified,” Haig told the Arizona Republic. Haig said Paddock told him he was going to put on a “light show” with the tracer ammunition he bought. The bullets leave a visible trail when fired. Clark County, Nv., Sheriff Joe Lombardo has said police and the FBI believe Paddock acted alone before he killed himself as police closed in.