Donald Trump blamed mental illness for the carnage in Oregon last week. "This isn't guns, this is about mental illness," the leading Republican presidential candidate said on ABC's This Week. “You have sick people in this country and throughout the world, and you're always going to have difficulty.”
Trump offered no solutions (though he did promise he'd “make things a lot better”). But his analysis of the root cause of the shooting at Umpqua Community College that left nine victims and the gunman dead is wrong. Blaming violence on mental illness obscures the fact that most people with mental illness will never injure anyone and most violence is perpetrated by people without mental illness, as John Oliver noted Sunday night.
This error isn't limited to people on the right who look for bogeymen to blame anything other than lax firearms laws when gun violence makes fresh headlines. Gun control advocates make the same assumptions. In August, designer Kenneth Cole bought a billboard in New York urging tighter gun restrictions: “Over 40 million Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care...all can access guns.”
Cole's message drew a backlash from the people who treat those Americans. “While many of the statements in your ad were correct, they linked violence and mental illness in a way that stigmatizes people with mental health issues,” 22 mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, wrote in an open letter to Cole. “Most violent acts are committed by people who are not mentally ill, and the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent.”
Trump's analysis makes the same faulty assumption as people on the left who paint all gun owners as extremists. A third of Americans own guns. Almost one-fifth of American adults have some form of mental illness, according to federal data. Neither one is a good predictor of who will go on a rampage.
The Trump campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.
“Surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes,” according to an analysis published this year in the American Journal of Public Health. “A growing body of research suggests that mass shootings represent anecdotal distortions of, rather than representations of, the actions of 'mentally ill' people as an aggregate group.”
The mass shootings that make national headlines are statistically difficult to predict, because they're so rare. Yes, guns, mental illness, and violent tendencies can be a toxic mix. There's room for better screening to make sure people with violent histories can't legally buy firearms. There's also a clear need for better mental health care.
But mental illness shouldn't be reflexively linked with violent spectacles, either by liberals arguing for tougher gun laws or by Republicans trying to deflect them.