Is there a connection between gun violence and mental illness?

Jane Castor
Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News.

After a mass shooting it’s common for analysts to examine the mental health of the suspect. But at a forum Friday hosted by the University of South Florida in Tampa, a behavioral sciences researcher downplayed the connection between gun violence and people with serious mental illnesses. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, says previous violent behavior is a better predictor of whether someone will commit violence using a gun.

“People tend to assume that there’s a big connection between mental illness and gun violence. Actually, even if we were to cure major mental illnesses we would still have a big problem with gun violence because they are two separate public health problems that intersect right on their edges. So I think we need to think about a number of different things. One is trying to limit access to firearms for people when they are at risk of harming others or themselves. And the other is, of course, try to address some of the social determinants of violent behavior. Both of those things are important.”

How do you limit the access to guns in people in that situation? First, how do you know when someone is in that situation and how do you go about limiting guns?

“Well, it’s very difficult in our country because people have a constitutionally protected right to own a firearm. So we can’t broadly limit legal access to guns, we have to try to figure out who are the people who are dangerous.”

Swanson thinks expanding a ban on guns to people with violent misdemeanors would be effective in reducing gun violence. He was a panelist at USF’s forum on mental health, guns & violence. Swanson disagrees with Florida’s prohibition on doctors asking patients if there are firearms in the home, calling it “wrongheaded.”

Tampa’s Police Chief Eric Ward attended the forum.

“There’s a screening in place. There are actually, you know, amendments in place to provide people an opportunity to get concealed weapons. And as long as they meet that threshold then they should be afforded an opportunity to apply for weapons and get those weapons. However there should be some type of screening in place that distinguishes people with disabilities that may not be stable enough to carry those weapons. So I’m interested in what’s going to happen today and the discussion and get that information that I can bring back to our agency.”

Tampa’s former Police Chief Jane Castor thinks gun owners should have to register their firearms and is against moves to allow guns on university campuses or to allow Floridians to openly carry their firearms.

“When individuals with mental health issues become violent what does everybody do? They call the police. Now, officers always try to deescalate situations verbally, but this approach rarely works in these situations. And as incomprehensible as this may sound to the layperson, often the most humane means of control for an officer is to use a Taser. An officer is able to subdue someone without injury and to hopefully get him or her to a facility for treatment.”

Castor says she opposes marijuana legalization because most of the shootings she sees involve the abuse of alcohol or other drugs. She criticized the National Rifle Association for blocking sensible regulations on firearms.

“I own guns. I have no issue with gun ownership. I would also have no objection to registering my firearms and feel that anyone else who legally owns firearms should not have an issue with registration. As far as law enforcement is concerned, there is virtually no paper trail on a firearm after the initial purchase if it was from a legitimate dealer. When we recover firearms out on the street it is very, very difficult if not impossible to trace that back to an individual. And then we have, in Florida, the ‘gun show loophole.’”


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