NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Since 1979, NAMI has been advocating for access to services and treatment, and is steadfast in its commitment to raising awareness and fighting the stigma associated with mental illness.
We at NAMI Massachusetts are gravely concerned about the misperceptions that have led some to believe that keeping guns out of the hands of anyone with a mental health diagnosis will prevent gun violence. In the aftermath of recent tragedies that have involved guns, it is incumbent upon us all to take a thoughtful and reasoned approach and not be ruled by emotion and an understandable desire to find a quick fix.
There are widespread misperceptions about mental illness and violence, and the challenge for us lies in educating ourselves about what the research actually shows. Only then can we make informed, meaningful, responsive policy decisions on gun control.
First, it is important to recognize that mental illness affects 1 in 4 people, or upwards of 70 million people in the US.
Yet the consensus among experts is that most violence is not committed by people who are mentally ill, and most mentally ill people are not violent.
The vast majority of violence in our country is not perpetrated by persons with serious mental disorders. The best available estimates indicate that of all the violent acts committed in the US, only 4 to 5% is attributable to people with mental illness.
Other demographic and socioeconomic factors weigh more heavily on the likelihood of committing violence than mental illness; such as being young, single, working class and male.
Active substance abuse, and particularly alcohol abuse, substantially increases the risk of violence by anyone, and particularly by people with mental illness.
Among people with major mental illness, the risk of violence is elevated when they already have histories of violent behavior, and when they are experiencing violent ideation (thinking violent thoughts).
Research suggests that individuals with mental illnesses who are engaged in regular treatment
are less likely to commit violent acts than those who are not engaged in appropriate mental health treatment.
People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators – 2 1/2 times more likely than those without mental illness to be the victims of violent crime.
Suicide is a major public health concern, and mental illness is a major risk factor for suicide. According to the Center for Disease Control data, over 52% of completed suicides were by firearm in 2005. 3 out of 5 people who die from gunshot wounds take their own lives.
We believe that effectively addressing recent tragedies including the 20,000 suicides committed each year with guns – requires meaningful gun control and an investment in comprehensive, accessible community-based mental health services.
We support universal background checks and database of information solely for safety purposes and gun licensing. The database should not be accessed for any other purpose than gun control and should have strict privacy protections.
We believe that universal background checks will not prevent all tragedies; that we also need early intervention for mental illness and a more robust array of community-based mental health services.
We believe that gun regulation is an effective method of suicide prevention. Guns are lethal and accessible. Gun owners and their families are much more likely to kill themselves than are those who don’t own guns.
We call for increased access to substance abuse treatment to assure public safety and decrease suicides. 66% of those with mental illness also have substance abuse problems. Substance use is often the catalyst for violent behavior.
The gun control debate can only move forward by shifting the focus away from the broad category of anyone with a mental diagnosis to factors and behaviors that directly correlate to violence to oneself or others.