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Make Real Change On Gun Violence: Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Health Disabilities

What You Need To Know

Research shows that there is no direct link between gun violence (excluding suicide) and mental health. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds are more likely to be the victims of gun violence. People with disabilities in general are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime, such as robbery or sexual assault. The police are also more likely to use deadly force against people with disabilities.

Nonetheless, some policymakers and media reports continue to scapegoat people with mental health disabilities for mass shootings and other forms of gun-related violence, even though these crimes are mostly committed by people without disabilities.

This rhetoric can lead to laws and government actions that discriminate against people with disabilities. In 2016, the Social Security Administration passed a rule that would have stopped any Social Security recipient who had a mental disability and needed help managing their money from owning a gun.1ASAN Statement on SSA Representative Payee Gun Database Rule, Autistic Self Advocacy Network (May 2, 2016), Congress later passed a law that canceled this rule. Other bills have tried to take away the rights of people with mental health disabilities to make decisions about mental health treatment.

ASAN wants to change the conversation that we, as a society, have about gun violence and people with mental health disabilities. Misinformation and stereotypes hurt some of the most marginalized people in our society. We can do better.

The Evidence

The research is clear: when researchers controlled for other risk factors, they found that people with mental health disabilities are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. For example:

  • Studies have shown that people who have bipolar disorder are no more likely to commit violent crimes than the general population, after accounting for other risk factors.2See Seena Fazel et. al., Bipolar Disorder and Violent Crime: New Evidence From Population-Based Longitudinal Studies and Systematic Review, 67 Arch Gen. Psychiatry 931, 935-36 (2010).
  • A study, using data collected from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, looking at approximately 43,093 people, found that mental health disability did not by itself increase the risk of any violent act.3See Eric B. Elbogen & Sally C. Johnson, The Intricate Link Between Violence and Mental Disorder: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, 66 Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 152, 155-57 (2009).
  • A study that looked at people discharged from psychiatric inpatient facilities and compared them to people from the same neighborhoods found that the people who had been hospitalized were no more likely to commit violence than those who had not been hospitalized, after accounting for other risk factors such as substance abuse.4Henry J. Steadman et. al., Violence by people discharged from acute psychiatric inpatient facilities and by others in the same neighborhoods, 55 Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 393, 399-401 (1998).
  • A study found that without personal and environmental factors that tend to increase the risk of violence for everyone, people with mental health disabilities were about as likely to behave violently as people within the general population.5Jeffrey W. Swanson et. al., The Social–Environmental Context of Violent Behavior in Persons Treated for Severe Mental Illness, 92 Am. J. Pub. Health 1523, 1528-29 (2002) (finding that while people with mental health disabilities were slightly more likely to be violent than people in the general population, that slightly increased risk was due almost entirely to other risk factors for violence commonly present in their lives); Maria Konnikova, Is There a Link Between Mental Health and Gun Violence? The New Yorker, (Nov. 19, 2014), (citing the conclusions of the Swanson 2002 study).

People with mental health disabilities are also no more likely to be involved in gun violence (excluding suicide) than anyone else.

  • One research review, citing data they retrieved from the National Center for Health Statistics, reports that only 5% of the 120,000 gun-related deaths between 2001 and 2010 involved a shooter with a diagnosed mental health disability.6See Jonathan Metzl & Kenneth MacLeish, Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms, 105 Am. J. Pub. Health 240, 240-41 (2015).
  • According to to an analysis of the FBI database of mass shootings by EveryTown Research conducted in 2015, there was no evidence at all that the shooter had a mental health disability in the vast majority of the incidents.7Analysis of Mass Shootings, Everytown for Gun Safety (Aug. 20, 2015) A subsequent analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety, conducted between January 2009 and December 2016, does not discuss the prevalence of mental health disability among mass killers.

In fact, most studies show that people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be the victims than the assailants:

  • In general, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), people with any disability are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of any crime than people without disabilities. They are also more likely to be the victims of violent crimes.8Erika Harrell, U.S. Dep’t of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ No. 250632, Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities: 2009-2015 Statistical Tables 3 (2017).
  • A study comparing data retrieved from five separate studies of adults with mental health disabilities, occurring from 1992 to 2007, cataloguing the responses of thousands of individuals, found that nearly 30.9% (depending on the study) of the participants had been victimized at least once.9Sarah L. Desmarais et. al., Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults with Mental Illnesses, 104 Am. J. Pub. Health 2342, 2342-349 (2013). 
  • A 1999 study on people who had been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility found that they had been the victims of violent crimes at a rate two and a half times greater than that of the general population.10Virginia Aldigé Hiday et. al., Criminal Victimization of Persons with Severe Mental Illness, 50 Psychiatric Services 62, 62-68 (1999).
  • A study of data collected from 936 patients of mental health agencies, as compared to data from 32,449 people from the general population who completed the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), found an even higher rate of victimization. The 936 mental health agency patients were 11 times more likely to be victimized than the 32,449 people who completed the NCVS.11Linda A Teplin et. al., Crime Victimization in Adults with Severe Mental Illness, 62 Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 911, 911-14 (2005).
  • In a 2001 study entitled “Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community,” the study found that people with schizophrenia are about 65% to 130% more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.12John S. Brekke et. al., Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community, 52 Psychiatric Services 1358, 1358-66 (2001).

People with mental health disabilities are even more likely to experience police violence:

  • In 2015 an article reporting on The Guardian’s “The Counted,” an attempt by The Guardian to catalog every single shooting committed by law enforcement officers, found that at the time the article was published 1 in 5 people killed by police had or were believed to have a mental health disability.13John Swaine, Oliver Laughland, Jamiles Lartley, Ciara McCarthy, Young black men killed by U.S. police at highest rate in year of 1,134 deaths, The Guardian (December 31, 2015, 3:00PM),
  • Of the police-related killings recorded in the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database in 2017, which records statistics about every person killed by the police in a given year that the newspaper can find, 25% of the victims either had or were believed to have a mental health disability.14Julie Tate et. al., Fatal Force, Washington Post, (2017 killings). This may actually underestimate the percentage of victims who had mental health disabilities, as some disabilities may not have been known to reporters.
  • The Ruderman Foundation hypothesized that 30-50% of people assaulted or killed by police officers have disabilities (particularly mental health disabilities), and that their disabilities are rarely mentioned in media reports of these incidents.15See David M. Perry, Lawrence Carter-Long, The Ruderman Foundation White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability: A Media Study (2013-15) and Overview 5-8 (2016) [hereinafter “Ruderman Foundation”],

Despite all this, most people still believe people with mental health disabilities are violent:

  • A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that up to 80 percent of Americans believe that the failure of the mental health system is in some way to blame for gun violence, with 48% of responders believing the system affected gun violence “a great deal” and 32% believing it affected the outcome by “a fair amount.”16Lydia Saad, Americans Fault Mental Health System Most for Gun Violence, Gallup News (Sept. 20, 2013),
  • This false idea has been promulgated by media outlets across the political spectrum (such as Mother Jones17Mark Follman, Inside the Race To Stop the Next Mass Shooter, Mother Jones (Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue); Lois Beckett, What Do We Actually Know About the Relationship Between Mental Health and Mass Shootings, Mother Jones, (June 19, 2014 10:00AM) the National Review18D.J. Jaffe, Preventing the Seriously Mentally Ill From Owning Guns Is Not Enough, National Review, (Jan. 5, 2016 6:12PM)
  • A 2016 study, which examined 400 news stories on mental health published between 1995-2014, found that the vast majority of them associated people with mental health disabilities with violence.19Emma McGinty et. al., Trends In News Media Coverage of Mental Illness in the United States: 1995–2014, 35 Health Affairs 1121, 1121-129 (2016). The later news stories were more likely to mention mental health in connection with mass shootings.20Id. The study’s authors inferred (based on other studies) that the increased coverage of mass shootings increased stigma towards people with mental health disabilities.21Id.
  • This misleading media coverage directly impacts the degree of public support for restrictions on the rights of people with disabilities. A 2013 study found that reading a short news story which described a mass shooting committed by someone with a history of mental health disability would make the reader more likely to support restrictions on the right of people with disabilities to own guns.22Emma McGinty et. al., Effects of News Media Messages About Mass Shootings on Attitudes Toward Persons with Serious Mental Illness and Public Support for Gun Control Policies, 170 Am. J. Psychiatry 494, 496-99 (2013).


The evidence is clear: the overwhelming majority of gun violence is committed by people without disabilities. Public opinion, and public policy, must catch up with reality.  Misinformation on this issue contributes to discrimination that has a real and negative impact on people’s lives. When lawmakers make policy based on fear and prejudice, the results endanger our civil rights and do nothing to make our communities safer. It’s time for us all to step up, challenge myths and misinformation, and demand real solutions.

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