Gun Deaths, Mental Health, & Laws
The Harsh Reality of Gun Deaths
I remember the day I first experienced tragedy as if it were yesterday. What happened left a deep sense of sadness within me. My best friend, Tony, and I met on the school bus. It was on the first morning of our 6th-grade year in rural Maryland and we were both wary of the bigger kids. We hit it off immediately and as the year progressed, we took to hanging out at each other’s house. I used to enjoy visiting his house, as his mother used to make us peanut butter cookies and lemonade. It was the happiest of times.
It was late on a Thursday afternoon, and we were busy playing with action figures when we both heard a loud crack, but we thought nothing of it, as the local kids loved to let off firecrackers. Only this was very different. A few minutes later, his mother rushed into the room and threw her arms around him as she sobbed. The confused look on his face is one that I still dream about. Neither of us had any idea what had happened, but somehow, I instinctively knew that it had changed us forever. I didn’t know what to do, so I left and ran back home.
Later that night, my parents sat me down and explained that Tony’s father had shot himself and was dead. It was only a while thereafter that I learned his father had an extensive gun collection that he kept locked away in his basement and that the crack we had heard was the gun being fired. While we innocently played and laughed as the aroma of freshly baked cookies embraced the house, he had taken his own life.
Tony’s father was a military veteran and patriot, a fact that my friend used to tell everyone given the chance, and rightly so. He was, after all, a hero. While generally upbeat, he used to tell us stories from the war. What he didn’t share was the fact that he suffered from war trauma that led to depression, alcohol abuse, and reliance on pain medication. As the tragedy unfolded, I found out that he had also recently lost his job and had invested his family savings with an unsavory businessman who had stolen every cent they owned.
It’s hard to know exactly how many lives were affected that day, but suffice it to say that it wasn’t only Tony’s family. Guns and tragedy from guns had entered what had been considered a safe neighborhood. Unfortunately, Tony’s family moved shortly afterward. A best friend was lost that day.[i]
Even though the above story is fictitious and Tony is not an actual person, this is based on a true event that happened when I was about Tony’s age when an extended family member of mine died in a gun-related tragedy. There can be no doubt that there are multiple underlying factors that contribute to the untimely gun-related deaths that plague our nation.
Today’s undeniable realities are that the dark shadow of gun violence hangs heavy over our society to a greater extent than ever. One only needs to listen to the news or check social media to see the toll gun violence takes on people and its continual increase. The same question persists—could some of these deaths have been avoided?
Issues and Factors Behind Increasing Gun Deaths
With the growing incidences of gun violence and related deaths, the conversation about why this is happening generally cycles around:
• Problems with more people having guns
• Greater social-economic disparities
• Mental health issues
• Lack of services
In a world that has become more technologically advanced, you would have expected a drop off in firearm-related deaths—but nothing could be further from the truth. Gun possession, either legally or illegally, has increased more than any other time in the world’s history, especially in the United States.
According to The Gun Violence Archive, gun deaths have been at about 40,000 each year in recent years.[ii] Suicides get less attention than gun-related murders but have long accounted for the majority of United States gun deaths.[ii] In 1917, according to the Pew Research Center, six out of ten gun deaths were related to suicide, and three-quarters of all US murders involved a firearm.[iii]
The fascination with guns and firearm ownership not only persists but increases year to year. There is a belief that a powerful weapon provides greater protection, increases a sense of safety, enhances a feeling of prowess, and allows some to be part of gratifying recreational activities. Indeed, if you are a person who wants to protect their possessions, family, property, or are a hunter, a collector, a gang member, or a thief, then a gun may be valued.
When I was young, I watched TV westerns and played cowboys or cops and robbers. Violence and weapons were often a part of video games. However, rarely today do video or virtual programs teach about the safe use of weapons or the possible consequences of bringing the gaming violence into the real world.
During the many years I’ve been privileged to work in healthcare services, I have seen death from many different illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters—including the COVID pandemic. However, firearm possession and ownership, both guns and now assault-like weapons, are at an all-time high and have been, in my opinion, a significant contributory factor to the growing number of gun-related deaths and growing trends in mass shootings. More guns are now in possession of potentially violent people who can represent a significant risk for endangering themselves and others.
The selling and marketing of potentially dangerous products, including guns, opioid pain medication, and political ideology, has become more sophisticated and, in many respects, adverse for our society. Opioid marketing and prescribing for pain issues have led to an epidemic of addiction and opioid-related deaths. The successful marketing of non-factual and self-serving political ideology has bought real threats to the survival of our democracy.
More people’s increase in guns purchase and possession appears to trend with the precarious and dramatic rise in violence and gun-related deaths. There appear to be no easy solutions in sight—a stalemate persists, with the polarized political ideology about guns, rights of ownership, resistance to governmental regulation, and licensing. People are now buying more guns which support the growth of weapons manufacturing and related sales industry.
Predisposing Factors to Gun Violence, Injury, or Death
The contributory factors to gun violence became more apparent to me during my years in medicine, psychiatry, and as a military internist. There remains much debate about the critical issues or contributors to the tragic deaths of so many from gun violence, suicides, homicides, accidental shooting of bystanders, or victims of stray bullets. Mass shootings continue to grow in frequency and have become more deadly with non-military ownership of military-type assault weapons. While a stalemate persists in coming up with solutions and actions, gun-related deaths continue to be a growing statistic.
Prominent contributory factors that create a high risk for self-harm or harm to others would include individuals that have:
• Easy and ready access to firearms, especially when an individual is prone to acting out violently toward others or one’s self, as people with troubled personalities are prone to unstable moods, anger, and rage
• Severe paranoid, anti-social, borderline, narcissistic personalities or those that suffer from delusional or psychotic states who would be considered more at risk for gun acting out
• Vulnerabilities due to drug or alcohol abuse and addiction and other mental health issues as severe depression who would be at higher risk for suicide or homicide
• Increased feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, and social isolation as well as those with developmental handicaps and lack of socialization skills
• Feelings of being marginalized, oppressed, bullied, victimized—with chronic resentment, fear, and anger, and the perception of not fitting in
• Had exposure to violence: growing up witnessing domestic violence or being the victim of sexual, physical abuse, or bullying
• Accumulated obsessional grievances of the wrongs done to them by others
• Psychological, behavioral, or developmental difficulties, limiting the ability to integrate social information and proneness to misinterpret information and from others
• Inadequately functioning personalities that lack the social skill and mental/emotional stability—possibly due to growing up in an unsupportive, dysfunctional or abusive family
• Been overly influenced by the media, violent video games, adverse peer support groups (gangs), family, neighborhood, or their social media consumption—especially when there is a glorification of violence, guns, or exposure to extreme ideas
• Possession of firearms developed for wartime use
Once primarily used for recreation, hunting, protection, and self-defense, guns are now increasingly used for violent behavior and aggressive actions toward self or others. Severe injury or death can occur when a disgruntled person with a grudge to settle is prone to explosive anger or rage and uses a lethal weapon. Gun deaths associated with gang and criminal activities remain a significant problem with the deadly use of firearms.
The Contribution of Mental Health Issues
Mental illness or impairment can underlie violent actions by a person. In legal terms, the determination is whether a perpetrator of violence, as a shooter, was criminally insane, not competent or unable to use self-control, or lacked appropriate judgment—lack of capacity to refrain from violent acts. Laws differ in the various states about what makes a person dangerous enough to himself or others. A determination occurs regarding the need for involuntary commitment for psychiatric care or legal incarceration for their protection or the protection of others.
People can be vulnerable to the influence of harmful leaders or media that put out propaganda and seductive political messages to gain power and followers. The message or rhetoric might drive fear or advocate for the righteous taking of action, retribution, or violence against the perceived enemies, oppressors, or wrongdoers. Conversely, the message can support the indifference and rejection of authority or promise to gain notoriety, fame, or importance from serving a perceived higher cause and taking the inspired violent action—a scenario seen in domestic and radicalized foreign terrorists, or lone actors of inspired violence.
A vulnerable mind can become fixated on unusual or unrealistic ideas, leading to an inflexible, anti-social, and misguided mindset. Fixations are more dramatic when there is a propensity for rigid, delusional, or paranoid thinking. Obsessional thinking can be severe in personality disturbances, bipolar, or schizophrenic-like illnesses.
The more fixed or obsessional thinking or reasoning becomes, the less one can learn from social contact. There is also the inability to learn from reliable information or feedback from others. In the extreme, the person loses the intrinsic checks and balances of mental flexibility and reasoning. As a result, the ability to learn and modify behavior adequately and participate in regular social activities is lost.
A recent incidence of a mass shooting was from a disgruntled employee who built up an arsenal of handguns and assault weapons. He shot a number of his fellow employees after developing resentment toward other workers and the employer. As in most of these situations, a long history of personality and mental health problems was suspected. A term used in the past was “going postal”—a reference to the past of mass shootings in postal facilities by a disgruntled or mentally disturbed employee.[iv]
People wait for more information after a violent crime or shooting, often expecting that there will be something in the mental health history to explain the murderer’s behavior. Generally, it is true that significant adverse factors in a person’s mental health and personality development can lead to dysfunctional thinking, behaviors, and tragic outcomes—if not recognized early and addressed.
Frustration Over Lack of Progress in Curbing Gun Violence
There is much concern and frustration that beneficial action to limited or better-regulated ownership and possessions of guns has not occurred. The polarization over gun control issues by our population, elected leaders, and members of Congress has led to a paralysis of any positive action for change. As a result, our country, one of the most modern, economically advantaged, and democratic, has become a disproportionate leader in gun violence and mass shootings than other economically developed countries.
The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but more than an estimated 30% of all mass public shootings occur in this country.[v][vi] The debate goes on about individual rights, second amendment rights, gun rights, too many guns on the street, including military-grade assault weapons, and the lack of mental health services. Common cited problems with the mental health system are the lack of services, inadequate screening, and poor identification of an individual at risk of acting out in an irrational, violent, or deadly way.[vii]
The availability and possession of so many guns in our society is a factor that is hard to ignore. When a shooter has more powerful, rapid-fire assault weapons with him, there is always the potential for a more significant number being wounded and killed. Therefore, gun laws, access to guns, improving gun control laws, and enforcement would undoubtedly be a helpful direction for lawmakers to take with the support of citizens, gun owners, the gun industry, and political leaders.
Take the essential holistic steps for emotional health when drawn into frustration or over-focus on the “stalemated” issues around gun violence and lack of control to foster change or improvement—begin taking active care of yourself with practices such as:
- Lifestyle changes like improving diet, nutrition, and exercise
- Increasing your spiritual openness and attunement, in finding ways to increase your times of feeling more connected to life beyond your usual restrictive focus on worries, anger, resentments, or hopelessness—move toward spiritual expansion, balance, or emergence from the darkness that may seem to dominate you at times
- Discovering empowerment by reentering community activities, giving help, nurturance, and support to others
- Finding supportive people with shared interests—learn, study, and practice valued things with a teacher or group
- Practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercises, spiritual practices, or studies that suit you
- Doing artistic and creative endeavors that get you moving and opening up
- Considering reconnecting to your own religious or spiritual traditions or find a holistic therapist or wise counselor, if you feel stuck
- Doing personal work which will not only benefit you but others as well—you will be like a small ripple in a pond that can influence your surroundings, and grow into a tidal wave of positive change—light will begin to shine into the dark places.
Positive Advocacy and Action for Change
- Advocate for increased funding from individuals, philanthropic institutions, businesses, corporations, and governmental sources for:
• Mental health, social services, and support agencies—make available more places to call for help and finding referral options
• Mental health training and support for law enforcement agencies and personnel in the deescalating of crises without the excessive use of force
• Specialty trained mental health personnel to assist law enforcement in response to drugs or alcohol intoxication, mental health, or disabilities crises
• Drug addiction programs to decrease the contributors to drug and alcohol addiction and related mental health issues, gang violence, drug trafficking, and dealing—reduce the involvement of the criminal and legal system and direct more funding toward drug treatment, rehabilitation, and reducing factors that contribute to drug addiction and use
- Increase public education about the warning signs of emotional and mental health disturbances and their related potential for violence
- Encourage those with concerns about someone’s health and safety to get involved and reach out to a qualified mental health provider for consultation and guidance
- Support taking money out of politics and let public funds support all public office seekers—removing hidden money donations from Political Action Committees (PACs), wealthy individuals, businesses, or corporations—set limits on all contributions and require transparency
- Support the election of sensible candidates that are public servants who have the interests of the people they serve as the priority
- Support funding and legislation that promotes gun registration, licensing, and education about safe firearm use
- Restrict or reduce the marketing and selling of military-level assault rifles and weapons designed for use in military conflicts
- Become more aware of and avoid being influenced by false information coming from media or news outlets, political propaganda, and rhetoric that may foster the growth of hate, racism, and discrimination that motivate division, hatred, and violence
- Take more notice and any action possible to stem the inappropriate abuse of communications technology and social media—that may give an unfair advantage to business or corporate entities for gaining profits, power, or domination over rivals
- Increase the monitoring and study of violence in the entertainment and video gaming industry that may affect vulnerable individuals prone to be influenced by repeated exposure to violent media
- Reach out for support, mental health service, or a support group if you have lost a significant other, family member, or someone in your community—especially if you feel isolated, suffering from loss, experiencing sleep or mood problems
- If you have been a victim of gun violence, consider becoming an advocate for gun regulation and safety in your community or an increase in mental health service—these actions can bring positive changes in community services, government, and administrative actions
I appreciate your interest and for taking the time to read about this important topic that has affected too many personally and devastatingly. My hope is that wisdom will prevail to bring resolution to the enduring heartache in our nation.
For questions or to schedule a consultation with Dr. Parks, fill in the contact form at https://parksmd.com/scheduling/
Lead-in photo for the article: antoniodiaz/123rf.com
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[i] Tony’s story is not that of an actual person or family, but a fictional story created from my years of clinical and personal experience, to heighten your awareness of the importance of the issues discussed.
[iii] Pew Research Center, August 16, 2019, Gun deaths in the U.S.: 10 key questions answered | Pew Research Center
[iv] This Is How Many People Have Died of Gun Violence This Year, Douglas A. McIntyre, April 16, 2021, This Is How Many People Have Died of Gun Violence This Year – 24/7 Wall St. (247wallst.com)
[vi] Public Mass Shootings in the United States: Selected Implications for Federal Public Health and Safety Policy, Jerome P. Bjelopera, Coordinator., et.al., CRS Report for Congress, March 18, 2013, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43004.pdf