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Mental Health, Guns and Violence
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This Discussion Guide is part of Community Conversations at FOCUS St. Louis.  It is meant to initiate civil discourse around the policies that affect the St. Louis region; to hear each other’s perspective. As is the case with all public policies, this issue is complex and multi-faceted, with many stakeholders. Please keep this in mind as you discuss mental health, guns and violence in your community.

Mental Health, Guns and Violence

On December 14, 2012, a mentally disturbed young man opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and murdered 26 people, including 20 children.

The broad national conversation about this shooting seems to have brought up two major areas of discussion. In a previous discussion guide (click here to access), FOCUS presented a set of broad facts about gun ownership in America, including regulations on how guns can be purchased. This discussion guide assembles facts about mental health and the ties between mental health and violence.

The purpose of this paper is not to endorse any specific course of action, but rather to assemble some facts about violence and mental health, and to list some of the solutions that have been proposed from a variety of perspectives.  

Background facts:
Laws regarding mental health and gun ownership:
  • Under current national law, it is illegal for anyone to knowingly sell a firearm or ammunition to someone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.”
  • Under Missouri law, "A person commits the crime of unlawful possession of a firearm if such person knowingly has any firearm in his or her possession and . . . is currently adjudged as mentally incompetent.”
  • The major national mechanism used to conduct background checks is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (widely known as NICS.) A licensed gun dealer can call the NICS system and within 30 seconds will be told if a person’s name is on the list, meaning that the person:
    • Has been convicted of possession of a controlled substance in the past year;
    • Has had multiple drug-related convictions in the past 5 years;
    • Or is "A person adjudicated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle own affairs, including dispositions to criminal charges of found not guilty by reason of insanity or found incompetent to stand trial.”
  • Since its creation in 1999, the NICS system has blocked more than 1.9 million gun sales or firearms permit applications.
  • Many states have not submitted records of persons with mental health problems to the NICS system:
    • 17 states have submitted fewer than 10 records of people to the mental health registry.
    • 33 states have not submitted any records to the substance abuse registry.
Number of people suffering from mental health problems:

  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 5% of Americans suffer from a "serious mental illness (SMI).”  (The link includes definitions for the term "serious mental illness.”)
  • "An estimated 26.2% of Americans ages 18 and older . . . suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.”
  • Mental health disease causes people to be a danger to themselves. One in ten people with schizophrenia will commit suicide. One in five people with bipolar disorder will commit suicide.
  • A large-scale study by the MacArthur Foundation found that only about 4% of violence can be attributed to a person’s mental illness. Note that mental health can exacerbate other risk factors.

Three Possible Perspectives:

Person A believes that current gun laws should be expanded to better identify and monitor people with mental illness.

Person B believes that focus needs to be on improving services for people suffering with mental illness.


Person C believes present gun laws adequately address mental health and gun ownership, but that the states need to enforce federal law and report mentally unfit individuals to the NICS system.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which person (A, B or C) do you most identify with? Why?
  2. How can we keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people? Is this an appropriate policy goal?
  3. Are you concerned that tracking people with mental illness is a breach of privacy and will lead to less people seeking mental health treatment?
  4. What other strategies can you suggest to avoid or reduce the number of mass shootings in America?
Links for further reading:
  1. January 24, 2013 National Journal article: We Need to Talk About Mental Health Even If It’s Only a Sideshow to the Gun Control Debate
  2. January 16, 2013 The New York Times article: What’s in Obama’s Gun Control Proposal 
  3. November 2011 Mayors Against Illegal Guns report: Fatal Gaps: How Missing Records in the Federal Background Check System Put Guns in the Hands of Killers
  4. The National Institute of Mental Health: The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America
  5. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law: Mental Illness and the Need for Health Care Access Reform
  6. December 18, 2012 St. Louis Beacon article: The difficult relationship between mental health and violence
  7. December 28, 2012 St. Louis Business Journal article: Inadequate focus on mental health also a tragedy
  8. December 18, 2012 National Journal article: Even Experts Can’t Spot the Next Violent Shooter
  9. December 17, 2012 The New York Times article: In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness
  10. April 9, 2000 The New York Times article: They Threaten, Seethe and Unhinge, Then Kill in Quantity
  11. January 25, 2013 National Journal article: Why Improving Mental Health Would Do Little to End Gun Violence
  12. St. Louis Public Radio/The Beacon Missouri Legislative Tracker
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