SAN ANTONIO — Current gun laws do not accurately target individuals at greatest risk for gun violence, according to a presentation here at the U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress.
Mental illness is not equivalent to danger, according to Jeffrey W. Swanson, PhD, of Duke University School of Medicine, who delivered the presentation, and that belief can be stigmatizing to individuals with mental illness. It also distracts attention from the main issue, which is easy access to firearms by individuals at risk for violence.
Jeffrey W. Swanson
“Risk factors for violence and dangerousness are many, and they interact with each other in complicated ways,” Swanson said. “They also tend to be non-specific. So, the risk factors for dangerousness tend to apply to many more people who are not going to do the thing you're trying to prevent. The best example for this is a huge risk factor for violence and aggression is being male.”
Based on research from Swanson and colleagues, being young, male, exhibiting substance abuse, impulsive anger, experiencing poverty, childhood abuse and social exposure to violence, indicate risk for violence.
In 1999, Connecticut passed a law that allowed police to remove firearms from individuals at risk of causing serious injury to others or themselves. The law authorized gun removal for up to 1 year under a civil court “risk warrant” process based on probable cause, even if the individual had no record of a gun-disqualifying mental health or criminal adjudication.
Swanson and colleagues analyzed the 762 gun removals executed under the law between 1999 and 2013 and found that the majority of individuals identified were unmarried, widowed or divorced males and had a mean age of 46.2 years.
Forty-six percent had a record for mental health or substance use disorder treatment; 62% posed a risk to themselves; and 45% were identified by calls from concerned family or friends.
Matching risk-warrant cases with death records indicated 21 individuals (3%) eventually completed suicide, six by guns, equating to a suicide rate approximately 40 times higher than the general population of Connecticut.
However, population-level data analysis indicated that approximately 10 to 20 gun seizures were executed for every 1 averted suicide.
“I don’t think we can predict who the next mass shooter is going to be or who the next person to commit an act of gun violence is going to be, but I think there’s a lot we could do to prevent the unpredicted,” Swanson said.
He recommended universal background checks, establishing healthier communities so that fewer children experience trauma, and improving access to substance abuse treatment.
“It’s not a single solution. It’s going to take a lot of [different] efforts altogether, and it’s going to take a long period of time,” he said. “If we did a lot of these things over time, I think we could achieve a less violent society. It’s not going to happen all at once with a big headline. But if we really got there, why would that matter?” – by Amanda Oldt
Swanson JW. Thinking carefully about mental illness, gun violence, and the law: Balancing risk and rights for effective policy. Presented at: U.S. Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress; Oct. 21-24, 2016; San Antonio.
Swanson Jeffrey W, et al. Law and Contemporary Problems, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2828847.
Disclosure: Swanson reports no relevant financial disclosures.