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Shootings focus attention on guns, white supremacy and mental health

President Trump called out violent video games and mental illness as prime drivers of mass shootings like the deadly attacks in El Paso and Dayton. Experts say the issue is far more complicated than that.

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump on Monday laid primary blame for two mass shootings over the weekend on mental illness and violent video games. But mental health experts and researchers are pushing back against the notion that mental illness and gaming are major drivers of gun violence.

A gunman opened fire at Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, killing 22 and wounding 24 before he was captured. Thirteen hours later, Dayton, Ohio, was rocked when a shooter killed nine, including his sister, and wounded 27 on the street in a district teeming with nightlife before taking his own life.

“If you look at both of these cases, this is mental illness. These are really people that are very seriously mentally ill,” the president said after the killings. In formal remarks Monday, he broadened the list of factors to include not just mental illness, but violent video games, then called “on the nation to come together to ‘condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.’”

The president is not the first to tie mass shootings to mental health issues. That claim is one of the underpinnings of the book, "Mass Murder in the United States: a History," by Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that individuals with mental illness are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they use drugs. A Gallup poll five years ago found nearly half of Americans blame gun violence on a mental health system that fails "to identify individuals who are a danger to others." Others agree.

But mental health experts largely dismiss mental illness as a root cause of mass gun violence.

President Donald Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, speaks to the media before boarding Air Force One in Morristown, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Donald Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, speaks to the media before boarding Air Force One in Morristown, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jacquelyn Martin, AP

In a written statement sent nationwide to media, American Psychological Association President Rosie Phillips Davis said focusing on mental illness doesn’t explain or prevent violence and it harms people who have a mental illness — the vast majority of whom show no propensity to harm others.

“Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing,” she said. “Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with or in treatment for mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them.”

She added, “It is clearer than ever that we are facing a public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred. The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic. Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting.”

What causes mass violence — and what to do about it — is the subject of contention. Survivors of mass shootings interviewed by the Deseret News disagreed on whether tougher gun control laws should be instituted, though most agreed that people should not have access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The idea that violent video games may play a role wins wide support across a political spectrum and a body of research seems to back it up. But the role of mental illness is much more strongly disputed.

According to a Vanderbilt University study, "Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness." Among mass murderers, the number with a mental illness may be somewhat higher, according to The New York Times, but falls far short of a majority, at a third or fewer.

President Donald Trump speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci, AP

Instead, "Most mass murderers instead belong to a rogue’s gallery of the disgruntled and aggrieved, whose anger and intentions wax and wane over time, eventually curdling into violence in the wake of some perceived humiliation," the article said.

The American Federation of Teachers warned, "Blaming mentally ill loners will not reduce gun violence: Suggesting mental illness is (always or often) the root cause of terrible acts is stigmatizing. Stigma prevents people with mental illness from seeking and accessing appropriate care.”

A mental health role?

The Intelligencer reported the president "wants to 'reform mental health' laws so that it’s easier to confine people deemed dangerous. Trump made it clear that he won’t support any restrictions on the weapons that are used in massacres like the ones over the weekend, saying that 'mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger — not the gun.'”

Researchers say individuals with mental illness may commit violent acts, but they are most often directed into self-harm or suicide. According to a study in the Annals of Epidemiology led by Duke University and Johns Hopkins University, “Media accounts of mass shootings by disturbed individuals galvanize public attention and reinforce popular belief that mental illness often results in violence. Epidemiologic studies show that the large majority of people with serious mental illnesses are never violent. However, mental illness is strongly associated with increased risk of suicide, which accounts for over half of U.S. firearms-related fatalities.”

A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that “the aftermath of mass shootings is often viewed as a window of opportunity to garner support for gun control policies, but it also exacerbates negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness.”

Other research agrees.

“Notions that mental illness caused any particular shooting, or that advance psychiatric attention might prevent these crimes, are more complicated than they often seem,” said a 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers at Vanderbilt University.

“The stigma linked to guns and mental illness is complex, multifaceted, and itself politicized, in as much as the decisions about which crimes U.S. culture diagnoses as ‘crazy’ and which it deems ‘sane’ are driven as much by the politics and racial anxieties of particular cultural moments as by the workings of individual disturbed brains. Beneath seemingly straightforward questions of whether particular assailants meet criteria for particular mental illnesses lay ever-changing categories of race, gender, violence, and, indeed, of diagnosis itself,” according to the study.

“Complex” is a common word studies use to describe what motivates mass violence.

Vice President Mike Pence follows President Donald Trump as he arrives to speak about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Vice President Mike Pence follows President Donald Trump as he arrives to speak about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci, AP

For example, one study for The American Psychological Association said, “these tragedies are influenced by multiple complex factors, many of which are still poorly understood. However, the lay public and the media typically assume that the perpetrator has a mental illness and that the mental illness is the cause of these highly violent acts."

It goes on to say, "Although some mass shooters are found to have a history of psychiatric illness, no reliable research has suggested that a majority of perpetrators are primarily influenced by serious mental illness as opposed to, for example, psychological turmoil flowing from other sources. As a result, debate on how to prevent mass shootings has focused heavily on issues that are 1) highly politicized, 2) grossly oversimplified, and 3) unlikely to result in productive solutions.”

The researchers wrote that, “instead of the focus on mental illness, increased attention should be paid to sociocultural factors associated with mass shootings and exploring other interventions and areas for further research.”

A 2015 Deseret News article examined the role of mental illness and the marginalization of men. It noted, “Some sociologists who study shootings contend that mental illness is only part of the underlying problem behind rampage shootings. A bigger question to be addressed, they say, is what it means to be a man in America today and how cultural ideas of manhood can lead some down a path of rejection, rage, mass murder and suicide.”

“There are so many people with mental illness that never commit violence,” Stony Brook University researcher, criminologist and sociologist Rachel Kalish told the Deseret News. “But many rampage shooters have been made to feel marginalized in some way and our culture makes violence seem like an appropriate way to assert masculinity.”

Are games to blame?

The president also raised the issue of violent video games after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018. A month after the gunman killed 17 students and staff members there and wounded 17 others, Trump met with video game manufacturers behind closed doors, and the White House produced a video showcasing clips of extreme violence in games.

Both Republican and Democrat leaders have raised concerns about an association between gaming and real-life violence. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013, then-Vice President Joe Biden also met with video game industry executives, The Associated Press reported. And in 2005, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton was the co-sponsor of a bill that, among other things, proposed criminal penalties for selling violent video games to minors. “We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol and pornography,” Clinton said then, The Atlantic reported.

In a 2013 survey of research on video games and violence, Common Sense Media said “there are reasons to be concerned” that viewing and playing games could raise the risk for violent behavior later in life. But the researchers noted that this is especially true for a child who already displays aggressive tendencies and is growing up in a violent home. And the report stressed that violent games are a risk factor rather than a cause.

“Just as not all children raised in violent homes will become violent, not all children who play violent video games will become violent — but there is a greater chance that they will, especially if there are multiple risk factors operating at the same time,” the report said.

Other researchers vehemently deny that there is a link at all. Writing in The Conversation, Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, said there is no evidence that gaming contributes to violence and that bringing the topic up after every mass shooting amounts to a “moral panic.” In fact, Ferguson said that his research shows a reduction in violent behavior among gamers.

“These correlations are very strong, stronger than most seen in behavioral research. More recent research suggests that the releases of highly popular violent video games are associated with immediate declines in violent crime, hinting that the releases may cause the drop-off,” Ferguson wrote.

Proven commonalities

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, two researchers who study the lives of mass shooters said the majority have four things in common: childhood trauma and early exposure to violence, identifiable “crisis points” in the weeks leading up the shooting, research to devise a plan, and means to carry out a plan.

While the two latest shooters are relatively young — the shooter in Dayton was 24, the shooter in El Paso, 21 — other research has shown wide disparity in age, and the deadliest, in Las Vegas in 2017, was carried out by a 64-year-old.

The Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Craig Paddock, was known for playing video poker, not violent games. And in a report released earlier this year, the FBI could not determine a motive or definitive cause for what caused Paddock to fire more than 1,000 bullets into a crowd at a country music festival. Nor has he been publicly linked to any form of mental illness.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the age of the shooter in Dayton, Ohio, as 42. He was 24.