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After El Paso Shooting, Experts Say Mental Illness Is Not To Blame For Gun Violence

Governor Greg Abbott has said mental health “is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence.”

Melody Stout and Hannah Payan comfort each other during a vigil for victims of the El Paso shooting.

Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas needs to do a better job of addressing its mental health care challenges after a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart.

Speaking at a press conference after the shooting, Abbott said the state has enacted new legislation in the wake of last year’s shooting at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston. The governor held a series of roundtables at the Capitol in 2018 aimed at strengthening student safety.

“During that time we did not, as far as I know, evaluate for and plan for an incident like this,” Abbott said. “That said, I can tell you that perhaps the most profound and agreed upon issue that came out of all of those hearings was the need for the state and for society to do a better job of dealing with challenging mental health based issues.”

The governor said mental health “is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence.”

But researchers and advocates are pushing back against the idea that mass shootings are tied to mental illness. Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement that blaming gun violence on mental illness is unfounded and can reinforce stigma about these conditions.

“Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness,” she said. “The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.”

Studies have shown most people living with serious mental illness are never violent.

Jeff Temple, a professor with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, says drawing such associations in the wake of mass shootings could make people hesitant to seek treatment for mental health conditions. Temple co-authored a study which found mental illness is not to blame for gun violence.

“When something like El Paso happens, the first thing people jump to is, ‘Man, that guy must have been insane,'” Temple said. “‘He must have had a mental illness.’ Well, maybe not. Maybe it is something else going on. Maybe there’s some hostility. Maybe there’s some anger.”

Temple’s study examined mental illness symptoms and personality traits and found people with a hostile demeanor were about three and a half times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun.

“What we found was that overall, mental health symptoms were unrelated to both carrying a gun and threatening someone with a gun,” he said.

In the end, Temple said the risk of violence comes down to access to firearms. The study found people with access were 18 times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun.

“By and large, it seems to be, that person has access to guns,” Temple said, “and that is the common factor in all shootings.”

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Tomeka Weatherspoon

Tomeka Weatherspoon

Senior Producer

Tomeka Weatherspoon is an Emmy-award winning producer. She produces segments, the weekly television program Arts InSight, the short film showcase The Territory and a forthcoming digital series on innovation. Originally from the Midwest, Tomeka studied convergence journalism from the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri. She has...

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