Mental health issues or gun laws? Utahns weigh in causes of mass shootings
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 40% say restricting access to firearms through stricter gun control laws would improve public safety.
Mass shootings only account for a small percentage of the gun violence fatalities in the U.S., where 45,222 firearm-related deaths occurred in 2020, an average of about 124 every day.
But according to data assembled by The Violence Project, U.S. mass shootings, defined by the nonprofit group as single incidents resulting in four or more deaths, not including the shooter, are becoming increasingly deadly.
From 2017 to 2021, mass shooters killed 295 people, about a third more than the 221 fatalities in the five-year period that ended in 2016. And the most recent data shows the number of people injured was five times higher than in the previous five-year period.
While different definitions of “mass shooting” are used by different groups and government agencies, per the Violence Project’s parameters, four mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. so far in 2022, the latest in Highland Park, Illinois, when a rooftop shooter killed seven people during a 4th of July parade.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, conducted July 13-18 of 801 registered Utah voters, sampled sentiment about the causes of mass shootings and the best ways to improve public safety when it comes to gun violence.
The statewide survey was conducted by Dan Jones and Associates and results come with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
When asked to identify the principal cause of mass shootings, 40% of respondents said shootings were the result of mental health treatment challenges, 31% said they stemmed from inadequate gun control laws and 10% said mass shootings occur due to inadequate security at schools and other public spaces. Some 19% of poll participants attributed mass shootings to other causes.
Parsing responses by political affiliation reveals a sharp partisan divide when it comes to assigning a cause for mass shootings.
While the top response for poll participants who identified as Republicans was mental health treatment issues, garnering 46%, Democratic respondents chose inadequate gun control as the No. 1 cause of mass shootings, at 63%.
Only 19% of Democrats who participated in the poll said mental health problems were the primary cause of mass shootings while 21% of Republicans said inadequate gun control was the most common cause.
When asked what is the best way to improve public safety regarding gun violence, 40% of respondents said restricting access to firearms through wider gun control laws was the best route, 16% said stationing armed security guards or police officers in more locations was the solution and 13% believe making access to guns easier to more citizens are armed does the most to bolster public safety. Placing more metal detectors in public spaces was the top response for 7% of poll participants, 4% said nothing needs to be done to enhance public safety in the face of gun violence and 20% said “other.”
A partisan disconnect was also apparent in responses to this Deseret News poll question. While 82% of Democrats who participated said restricting gun access through more stringent gun control laws was the best way to improve public safety, Republican respondents were split on the issue.
Among GOP survey takers, a 28% plurality said stricter gun control would best enhance public safety, 24% were in the “other” category and 20% believe more armed security and police officers in more places would do the most to ensure public safety in the face of rising gun violence incidents.
Gary Sackett, a Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah board member, reviewed the poll results and noted that while it is clear that those who commit mass murder are almost invariably suffering from some form of psychological pathology, he questioned whether assigning blame for mass shootings to mental health issues was a helpful recognition when it comes to the work of curbing gun violence.
“To the extent that people think the problem can be solved by more mental health programming, I just don’t think that’s a significant answer,” Sackett said. “Evil intent is not a crime until something actually happens. Solving gun violence incidents by cranking up a huge mental health programming effort across the country may have some effect, but it’s not the root of where you can make substantial headway.”
Sackett said he believes the most effective next steps in keeping the public safe from gun violence include banning assault-style weapons, raising the minimum age for firearm purchases to 21 years old and instituting more robust background checks, including additional federal funding to help expedite the turnaround times on those checks.
While mental health issues was the top response from poll participants when it came to identifying the cause of mass shootings, Sackett noted that more than half of the remaining respondents identified lax gun control measures as the biggest causal issue and 40% of poll takers said stricter gun control measures were the best way to protect the public from gun violence.
Sackett said a recently passed package of federal legislation, while less stringent than what the Gun Violence Prevention Center was hoping for, reflects a recognition among lawmakers of a rising concern among voters that gun violence issues need to be addressed through more robust rules and restrictions when it comes to who can purchase guns, and particularly assault-style weapons.
In June, Congress passed the country’s most significant gun safety legislation in decades in the wake of deadly shootings at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and a Buffalo, New York, grocery store. A number of congressional Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, joined Democrats in passing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
The bill includes grants for states to create and administer extreme risk or red flag laws that allow immediate family members or police officers to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from those who appear to pose a serious threat to themselves or others. The bill also expanded an existing law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun to include dating partners rather than just spouses and former spouses. The new legislation expanded requirements for background checks on individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 who are seeking to buy a gun.
A June Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found overwhelming support among Utah voters for red flag laws and strong support across the board for other measures aimed at curbing gun violence, including raising the legal age to buy firearms to 21, requiring background checks on all gun sales and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.