June is gun safety month. May is mental health awareness month. I’m not sure it would matter much to combine the two but it certainly couldn’t hurt. At this point anything is worth a try. I say that a few days out from another school shooting that left 21 dead and a couple weeks out from the racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York that left 10 dead. I say that a few days away from the one-year anniversary of the house party that was shot up in Fairfield Township in which three died and 11 were wounded.
Some might take the position that gun safety has little to do with mental health awareness, but numbers don’t lie. If you want to be overwhelmed, check out the Mother Jones Guide to Mass Shootings and its database of 128 mass shootings going back to 1982. It uses the FBI definition of a mass shooting—a single attack in a public place in which four or more victims were killed; when federal baselines changed this definition was changed to three victims.
Of the 128 shootings listed, there were slightly more than 1,000 fatalities and over 1,300 injuries. These 128 incidences involved some 36 states and of the 143 guns used by the perpetrators, more than 75 percent were obtained legally. The average age of these killers was 35 years old and according to the analysis, the vast majority of the individuals had displayed mental health issues prior to the event, which is why it might not be a bad idea to combine gun safety month with mental health awareness month to come out with a new hybrid.
If you’re not a reader of Mother Jones, then check out the Violence Project. It indicates that between 1966 and 2020, there were 168 mass shootings as defined by the Congressional Research Service, which defines a mass shooting as a multiple homicide with four or more victims, mostly in public, and not part of another crime such as robbery or organized crime.
It is hard to say when the modern age of mass shootings began. A point in time might be 1966, the year that Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas Tower and spent part of August 1st killing 15 and injuring 31 with his rifle. This was the moment full-blown crazy merged with guns.
The research done by the Violence Project indicates that two-thirds of the mass shooters in its database had a history of mental health concerns and they say that this percentage is higher than the 50 percent of people in the general population who would satisfy the criteria for having mental illness at some point in their lives.
Beyond that, 25 percent of mass shooters had a mood disorder of some sort that includes depression or bipolar disorder, consistent with rates among the general population, and 27 percent of mass shooters had a thought disorder, which includes schizophrenia and psychosis, a rate significantly higher than the general population.
In terms of weapons, 78 percent were handguns, 28 percent semiautomatic assault weapons, 24 percent shotguns and 23 percent rifles. For those who think the focus should be on gun laws, half (50 percent) of all weapons were purchased legally.
Setting gun laws aside for the moment, maybe we need to be better at spotting people in crisis and have the legal framework to intervene. Maybe there needs to be less liability, whether for teachers, coworkers, or employers. I don’t have the answers, but these months we set aside to think about gun safety and mental health awareness is the right time to ask these questions and press for change.