Gun violence is not a mental health issue, officials say

Gun violence is a bigger public health crisis than mental illness, top medical officials say.

In the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school on Valentines Day, experts have been quick to remind the Trump administration that mental health is not the real problem.

The American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and four other medical associations issued a joint statement Friday urging Trump and Congress to stop blaming mental illness and focus prevention efforts on increasing research and decreasing access to guns.

‘The families of the victims in Parkland and all those whose lives have been impacted by daily acts of gun violence deserve more than our thoughts and prayers,’ the statement said. 

‘They need action from the highest levels of our government to stop this epidemic of gun violence now.’ 

In the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school on February 14, health officials have criticized the Trump administration for blaming the mental health of shooter Nikolas Cruz (pictured)

So far in 2018 there have been 34 mass shootings, defined as shootings with four or more people shot or killed, excluding the shooter.

In 2017, the total number of mass shootings was 346. In 2016, it was 383. In 2015, 333. The US has less than five percent of the world’s population but has 31 percent of global mass shooters.  

Last week 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot up a high school in Parkland, Florida, with an AR-15 machine gun, killing 17 people.

Hours after the shooting, President Donald Trump tweeted: ‘So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!’

Top health officials have responded to the administration’s focus on mental health by emphasizing that gun violence cannot be blamed on mental illness.

While they welcome more resources and attention to mental health issues, they say the administration is ignoring the real problem – easy access to guns, particularly the kind of high-powered highly lethal assault weapons used in many of the most recent mass shootings. 

American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, released a statement on Friday addressing the mental health narrative that had formed around Cruz. 

‘It is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness,’ Daniel said.

‘Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness. More important, it does not direct us to appropriate solutions to this public health crisis,’ she said.

 Gun violence in America today is a public health crisis, one that requires a comprehensive and far-reaching solution.

American Medical Association President David Barbe, MD 

Similarly, American Medical Association’s president David Barbe, MD, wrote a column following the shooting calling politicians to action because ‘action on gun violence is long overdue.’

‘Gun violence in America today is a public health crisis, one that requires a comprehensive and far-reaching solution,’ he wrote.

‘Today, more than ever before, America’s physicians must lend their voice and their considerable political muscle to force lawmakers to examine this urgent health crisis—through federally funded research—and take appropriate steps to address it. 

‘Let me be very clear about this. We are not talking about Second Amendment rights or restricting your ability to own a firearm.’

‘We are talking about a public health crisis that our Congress has failed to address. This must end.’

The AMA has supported efforts to boost gun violence research, ban assault weapons and to restrict access to automatic weapons.

However, Barbe and others have emphasized the importance of research on the federal level. 

On average, 96 Americans are killed by guns every day. There were about 38,000 US gun deaths in 2016, slightly more than the number of people who died in car crashes, according to the CDC.

Gun violence is a leading cause of death, but there is very little research on it versus other leading causes.

A 1996 bill limits the extent to which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can study the topic by forbidding the organization to use funding to ‘advocate or promote gun control.’

In 2016, more than 100 medical organizations signed a letter asking Congress to lift the amendment.

Again on Friday, the joint statement from six top medical associations urged the federal government to take action. 

A Gallup poll from October found that 60 percent of Americans support passing stricter gun control laws. 

A main blockade to gun control laws is the National Rifle Association, which has contributed more than $13 million to political candidates, parties and leadership political action committees between 1998 and 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ database.

For the 2016 election cycle, the group spent just over $1 million on candidates for federal office, the vast majority of which went to Republicans. 

In February 2017, President Trump repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have made it easier to block the sale of firearms to people with certain mental illnesses.  

Republican governor of Florida Rick Scott has said he’s discussed how to restrict gun access to the mentally ill with Trump and GOP leaders.

Federal and state laws already attempt to do this, in many cases with a ban on gun ownership for people who have been treated in mental institutions.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration is committed to addressing serious mental illness and that his agency ‘will be laser-focused on this issue in the days, weeks, and months to come.’ 

This is hardly the first time mental health has been a key focus in the discussion of mass shootings. 

When James Holmes was in court for the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the media scrutinized his psychiatrist. Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

After Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the media focused heavily on his autism spectrum disorder. 

In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, President Barack Obama mentioned the importance of addressing mental health. 

Following the Valentines Day shooting, media coverage has dug deep into Cruz’s history to determine if he was mentally ill.  

Cruz was expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February after officials at the high school claimed they documented at least five separate violent incidents involving the Florida native. 

He has been described by students as a loner with anger management issues. Classmates had flagged up his threatening behavior including messages on social media to school authorities on several occasions.

His adoptive mother died in November and he had been staying with family friends who have said he’d never shown any signs of dangerous behavior.

He was held for a psychiatric evaluation in 2016 after recording a video on Snapchat in which he cut his arms and said he wanted to buy a gun, according to a mental health report. 

However, professionals at the mental health facility in south Florida decided not to hospitalize him. 

Officials are still working to determine the motive behind Cruz’s attack on February 14.