police tape
Credit: Tony Webster/flickr

Apparently, the Secret Service has been studying the profiles of people who carry out mass casualty shootings and they’ve discovered that most of these people showed signs of mental illness prior to going on their rampages. I guess mental illness can be easy to define in some cases, like when a person has been taking prescribed medications for a mental disorder. But I have a problem with how people discuss this issue.

If you decide, for whatever reason, to kill a bunch of strangers, there’s something wrong with your brain. I’d say that you’re ill. We can debate whether individual shooters know right from wrong and just want to do wrong, or if they’re too mentally impaired to realize that what they’re doing is immoral and illegal. In other words, insanity can be a defense in some cases. But it seems wrong to ask whether or not these people are mentally ill. Of course they are.

An organization like the Secret Service wants to know if they can predict if someone will become a threat, so I have no problem at all with them trying to identify common warning signs. Even from a policy point of view, you’d like to know if the data can support the idea that doing a better job of treating mental illness can be a fruitful way of lessening the frequency of mass casualty shootings.

But it’s silly to make a statement like “64 percent of suspects suffered from symptoms of mental illness.” What they actually mean is that 64 percent of the shooters had suicidal thoughts or suffered from paranoia or other delusions. This is what is supposed to be predictive, but the research is being done retroactively and only deals with what they can find in the record. If someone shoots themselves after gunning down a church full of people, can we really say they had no suicidal thoughts just because they never mentioned them or sought treatment? Does anyone kill themselves on purpose without thinking about it first?

It’s useful to go back and see if the shootings could have been prevented and, if so, how this might have been done. But I don’t think it makes sense to suggest that any of these killers were mentally fit. For the purpose of sentencing the perpetrators who survive their massacres, we’d like to know if they are simply insane, but it’s a safe bet that their worldview is so warped that it could never be defined as healthy.

There are all kinds of potential problems with treating gun violence as a mental illness problem, so I think we should be very specific about what kinds of symptoms and behaviors have predictive value. The broad umbrella of “mental illness” doesn’t cut it. And policymakers need to be extra careful that they don’t disincentivize people to seek treatment for themselves or their loved ones. That’s bad enough in itself, but if guns remain as readily available as they are today, such a policy would create more untreated mental illness without reducing the ease with which sick people can arm themselves and create mass tragedies.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com