Research News

James Holmes mass shooting trial – mental health and gun violence expert available

Jury selection is set to begin in the mass shooting trial James Holmes. Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 more when he allegedly opened fire in a Colorado movie theatre in 2012.

Jonathan Metzl
Jonathan Metzl (Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt psychiatrist, sociologist, and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society Dr. Jonathan Metzl, is an expert on gun violence and mental illness.

“Certainly this is a dramatic and tragic example of a bad combination of a disturbed mind and easy access to firearms,” said Metzl. “At the same time, the question of whether the Aurora, Colorado, shooting was singularly ‘caused’ by mental illness is far more complicated than it might seem.”

Holmes could face the death penalty, but is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. In Colorado, someone found to be insane cannot be put to death.

Mental Illness and Mass Shootings

Metzl has new research published in the American Journal of Public Health that specifically addresses issues surrounding mental illness and mass shootings.

“When a mass shooting occurs there seems to be a familiar narrative that untreated mental illness is the primary cause for the terrifying act. But, even though cases such as the movie theatre shooting suggest otherwise, an isolated focus on mental illness is misguided if not placed in a larger context,” said Metzl.

In the article, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms,” Metzl and co-author Kenneth T. MacLeish analyzed data and literature linking guns and mental illness over the past 40 years.

Mental Health Myths

Their research uncovered four central myths that arise in the aftermath of mass shootings such as Aurora:

(1) Mental illness causes gun violence

(2) Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens

(3) U.S. mass-shootings “prove” that we should fear mentally ill loners

(4) Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass-shooters, gun control “won’t prevent” mass shootings

They stress that all four of these seemingly self-evident assumptions, though understandable, distort general statistics about gun crime and mental illness more broadly.

“Our research finds that fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. And across the board the mentally ill are 60 to120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators,” they write.

Misdirected Blame

Metzl and MacLeish find that the focus on mental illness after horrific, yet statistically rare, mass shootings misdirects people from the bigger issues tied to preventing gun deaths in the U.S.

“There are 32,000 gun deaths in the United States on average every year and people are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths,” said Metzl.

“We should set our gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime.”

Mental Screening Cannot Predict Gun Crime

The presumed link between mental illness and gun violence has led to calls for mental health screening for gun owners. But the authors find that psychiatric diagnosis is in and of itself not predictive of violence.

“Even the overwhelming majority of psychiatric patients who fit the profile of recent U.S. mass shooters – gun-owning, angry, paranoid, white men – do not commit crimes,” Metzl and MacLeish write.

“Basing gun crime-prevention efforts on the mental health histories of mass shooters risks building ‘common evidence’ from ‘uncommon things,’ all while giving mental health providers the untenable responsibility of preventing the next massacre.”

Signs to Predict Gun Violence

The authors detail how focusing solely on mental illness ignores those factors that do predict gun violence more broadly:

  • Drug and alcohol use
  • History of violence
  • Access to firearms
  • Personal relationship stress

“It is beyond doubt that cases like Aurora represent horrific, indescribable tragedies, and result in senseless pain and loss of life. But, beneath the headlines, in the world of the everyday, people are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths,” according to Metzl and MacLeish’s research.