By Marci Lobel
Our nation is reeling from another school shooting involving a perpetrator who was psychologically disturbed. As we consider ways to prevent such tragedies from recurring, it is important to focus on what is known about gun violence. Only by understanding these facts can we develop strategies that are most likely to be effective.
First, the majority of gun violence is committed by people without mental illness. This is well documented by public health experts. A person with mental illness is much less likely than a person without a diagnosable mental illness to commit an act of gun violence. In fact, mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of gun violence. Inaccurate claims equating mental illness with gun violence promote stigma and misunderstanding about mentally ill people and may make it less likely that they will reach out to seek help.
Second, mass shootings are not as common as other acts of gun violence. Mass shootings in schools or elsewhere — churches, movie theaters, congressional softball games, music concerts — understandably receive a lot of attention because these tragedies are exceptionally horrifying, especially when children are victims. Nevertheless, the majority of deaths and unintended injuries by guns are not through mass shootings. Every day in the United States, 93 people die from gun violence on average, according to the key gun violence statistics page on www.bradycampaign.org.
Third, owning a gun or having one accessible puts you at risk of being killed by it. According to research published in 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, homicides, suicides and accidental gun deaths are more numerous among gun owners and others in their household, especially children and women, than among people who don’t own guns. Research also shows that states with higher gun ownership have higher gun homicide rates, even after controlling for other predictors such as poverty and alcohol consumption, and states with gun control laws have fewer gun deaths. Additionally, numerous studies comparing developed countries find that the number of guns per capita is a strong, independent predictor of the number of gun deaths in that country.
“Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”
— Leonard Berkowitz
Fourth, the U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed the constitutional legitimacy of gun restrictions. In 2008, in delivering the opinion of the court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. … We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller [a previous court case] said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time.’ We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”
Fifth, merely being in the presence of a gun increases aggression. This phenomenon, “the weapons effect,” is well demonstrated by social psychology research, which also finds that people recognize and react to guns very quickly. “Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well,” wrote Leonard Berkowitz in a 1967 study with Anthony LePage. “The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”
To truly protect our children, our families, our communities and our nation, we must adopt measures that are consistent with what is known about gun violence. The findings described above suggest that improving mental health outreach and treatment, while important in and of itself, will not solve the much larger problem of gun violence in American society. Stationing armed guards in our schools is not a solution — this endangers our children, teachers and those who work in schools because of the weapons effect described above. And even well-trained professionals are known to make errors in high-pressure situations. As to the idea of arming teachers, there are many more serious flaws with that idea than can be listed here. Furthermore, addressing mass shootings in our schools does nothing to eliminate the 93 gun deaths that occur day in and day out in this country.
Can we enact sensible gun policies? The Supreme Court has ruled that some gun restrictions are constitutional, and evidence indicates that gun control reduces gun deaths, even though it doesn’t completely eliminate them. The vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, support sensible gun policies. So what are we waiting for? We’re waiting for our political leaders to act. Demand action from your elected officials. Make phone calls, send letters, march, protest and vote. Get involved with organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. Demand action before another 93 people die tomorrow.
Marci Lobel is a professor of psychology and the director of the program in social and health psychology at Stony Brook University.