Mass Shootings—Too Many Guns or Mental Health Problems
Resolving the political divide on the causes and solutions of active or mass shooter incidences may be in the link between mental health, depression, lethal weapons, and media influence.
There has been a lack of progress in passing new legislation and regulations to help curb the increase in mass shootings of innocent people. Tragic loss of life from mass shootings or active shooter incidences is now an almost daily occurrence and increasing. People feel helpless and angered that our elected officials, for-profit businesses, and organizations can’t have fruitful discussions or surmount their partisan stuck talking points and biases.1
The movie, A Man Called Otto2can better inform people, and perhaps politicians, or at least open the conversation about the major contributing factors to suicides, homicides, and preventative measures. In the movie, Otto, played by Tom Hanks, is socially awkward and rude to neighbors and others encountered. He eventually inadvertently becomes a local hero and begins to build meaningful relationships. Otto’s character is a grumpy widower who frequently criticizes and judges people he encounters. He struggles to get past his suicidal depression and loss of meaning after his wife’s death and the end of his career. The movie has some comical moments and is emotionally moving.3
Click on the picture above to view the movie trailer.
The movie is an excellent performance by Tom Hanks and the supporting ensemble of actors. Otto’s character gives us a glimpse into the pain and suffering when significant anchors, meaning, and purpose to one’s life are lost. There ensues a descent into a suicidal depression with potential self-harm or homicidal actions during his troubled journey to salvation. Otto’s persistence of irritability and anger towards others is of note. There is always the possibility that a person accumulating grievances toward others may direct their anger and, eventually, violence toward them.
A simplified notion is that depression is related to anger directed inward and that acting out and aggression towards others occurs when others get blamed for personal losses and grievances. Many accumulative issues can contribute to a despondent person focusing on self-harm or harming others (suicidal or homicidal). For instance, a person may be influenced by the feelings of victimization or maltreatment by others with the urge to act out with rage and homicidal intent or actions toward others.4
In the movie, Otto doesn’t have to buy a firearm for his suicidal plan as he has one in storage upstairs. The gun becomes one of his ways for him trying to commit suicide. The people who, fortunately, interrupt his ill-conceived plans are neighbors who care for him to different degrees. Otto has been a tolerated neighborhood character for many years who has unintentionally or inadvertently helped others.
Though Otto’s intended solution to his loss, misery, and depression was suicide, it could have switched if circumstances were slightly different. Homicide or a mass shooting might have occurred if enough grievances accumulated or if he was more isolated and influenced by the prevalent news coverage of mass shootings or social media participation that have the potential to radicalize someone into becoming a home-grown terrorist for revenge or to gain notoriety as a champion of a radical cause, or to settle grievances by the targeting of a viewed enemy or hated other. Also, if he had easy access to weaponry often used in today’s mass shootings, he might have considered homicide an option for his internalized pain and suffering. So, there could be a fine line or turning point with today’s media and influences that could have led Otto to be another mass shooter or perpetrator of violence towards others.
The bottom line here is that all would be more preventable if there were more and easier access to mental health services and better public education for identifying individuals at risk with significant mental health risks to self or others. The related issue of the role and presence of guns and the need for more monitoring and regulation opens a whole debate on gun ownership and personal rights. A significantly increased public funding would be necessary to implement any agreed-upon improvements in gun regulation and monitoring, public education for gun safety, and expanding law enforcement agencies and mental health services. Raising the need for revenue for critical services would require lawmakers and politicians to put aside their respective biases to pass legislation to increase government revenue by fair taxation of all and to spending cuts in less essential or needed areas. A combination of compromise and negotiation would potentially gain the tax revenues and changes required.
“Otto,” starring Tom Hanks, might help you get off the fence about whether mass shootings are because of the proliferation of guns or mental health issues. The movie, I would argue, can help inform people that the issues are both guns and mental health problems. The gun violence archives have shown that most gun-related deaths were accounted for by suicide, where people took their own life with guns. Now mass shootings are competing as a cause of death from firearms.
Mass shootings can often be related to mental health problems and access and availability of guns. There are many other contributing factors. A few would be conservative values to protect business interests, including the gun industry and individual rights to own and possess firearms. People argue that it’s not guns and gun laws, as similar mass shootings occur in other states with the same rules, so full blame gets placed on mental health issues. Academics and social scientists look at statistics showing more guns owned, or availability accounts for more deaths.
The political debate over gun deaths is skewed towards gaining influence over respective supporters. Candidates often depend on getting funding for their campaigns from wealthy contributors such as the gun industry or the business community against more regulation or higher taxation. Political paralysis continues to occur as both sides are entrenched in their respective political and partisan ideologies. Little has changed a year after the tragic Uvalde mass shooting of schoolchildren. Opposing sides about who is to blame or what to do to make change have only become more polarized with inflexible positions.5
Increasing public education about the signs and symptoms of depression6 and warning signs of a potential active shooter would help reduce firearm deaths. Early recognition and treatment could prevent a descent into suicidal or homicidal actions, especially in today’s atmosphere of inadequate mental health resources and easy access to firearms.
Reid Meloy, a board-certified forensic psychologist, and FBI consultant identified eight warning behaviors common to mass shooters:7
- Planning and preparing the details of their attack, like buying ammunition and firearms in secret,
- Fixating on someone or a cause to the extent that it leads to deterioration in their social and work lives,
- Assuming an identity that shifts from a preoccupation with other mass shooters to wanting to become one themself, commonly a young man,
- Increasing energy and focus on preparing and carrying out the intended attack with a shift away from online internet behavior in the hours prior before the planned assault,
- Leaking communication of their intent to attack the intended victim or victims as a direct message on social media, such as posting a comment in a chat group,
- Communicating direct threats to the intended target (less common),
- Testing their ability to carry out violence by doing some aggressive action such as picking a fight or killing an animal. A reason might be to assess their ability to do violence or kill others,
- Saying things that show their urgent need to act violently soon.
Predisposing Factors to Gun Violence, Self-harm, or Harm to Others:
With the growing incidences of gun violence and related deaths, debates persist about why this is happening and how to prevent it. Discussion often revolves around:
- Problems with easy access to guns used for purposes other than recreation and hunting, especially guns that can inflict mass casualties.
- Significant social-economic disparities, poverty disadvantages, and discrimination against the people affected.
- Polarized politics and ideologies prevent progress and the needed positive changes.
- Mental health issues and lack of public funding for services and resources; at-risk people with mental and emotional problems can be prone to act violently toward others or themselves. Such individuals may have troubled personalities and unstable moods, anger, and rage, sometimes associated with the history of growing up in an unsupportive, dysfunctional, or abusive family or a history of being bullied, or severe paranoid, anti-social, borderline, narcissistic personalities or those that suffer from delusional or psychotic states would be considered more at risk for violent acting out.
- Lack of firearm regulatory and governing laws related to guns and their possession.
- Radicalization of vulnerable minds happens with exposure to extreme political discourse, hate groups, and propaganda. The message might be to hate and destroy perceived adversaries. Significant influences occur in social media, violent video games, adverse peer support groups (gangs), family, neighborhood, or their social media consumption — especially when glorifying violence, guns, or exposure to extreme ideas.
- A higher risk of suicide or homicide exists when mental health issues such as severe depression co-occur with drug, alcohol, and other substance use disorders.
- Psychological and developmental difficulties limit the ability to integrate social information and proneness to misinterpret information from others.
- There can be a desperate need to feel a part of a social group and to fit in, even if it is an extremist group found on social media. Feelings and ideas associated with the susceptibility to being drawn into radical groups and ideologies that may lead to violence toward others include feelings of being marginalized, oppressed, bullied, victimized, anger, rage, and rejection. People with difficulties with socialization skills, significant anxiety, low self-esteem, and social isolation may also be more vulnerable to the manipulation of others and have a preoccupation with thoughts of destroying one’s self or others.
- Had exposure to violence: growing up witnessing domestic violence and being the victim of sexual and physical abuse or bullying.
- Accumulated obsessional grievances of the wrongs done to them by others with growing resentment may exist.
Tips and Points to Ponder:
- Be an advocate for gun safety and regulation, and increase mental health funding and services, and support for law enforcement agencies and personnel—make available more places to call for help and find referral options; increase specialty-trained mental health personnel to assist law enforcement in response to drugs or alcohol intoxication, mental health, or disabilities situations.
- Increase public education about the warning signs of emotional and mental health disturbances and the potential for violence.
- Reduce the burden on the legal system by directing more funding toward drug treatment and rehabilitation and reducing factors contributing to substance use disorders.
- Encourage those concerned about someone’s safety to get involved and reach out to a qualified mental health provider for consultation and guidance.
- Take money out of politics and let public funds support all public office seekers—removing hidden large money donations from Political Action Committees (PACs), large business interests, and corporations—set limits on contributions and require transparency.
- Support the election of sensible candidates that are public servants with the interests of the people they serve as the priority.
- Citizens and leaders need to work together and take action to prevent gun violence with the realization that the issue is not going away without constructive work and effort. To best address the problem, it is essential to understand what is causing it and what steps are critical for prevention. Support funding and legislation that promotes sensible gun registration, licensing, and education about safe firearm use, along with other measures proposed in the past, such as background checks, protection orders for men subject to domestic violence to not have guns, safe storage when children are in the house, trigger locks on firearms and ammunition, stored separately, and bans on bump stocks that mimic automatic weapon fire. Nicholas Kristof, a contributor to The New York Times article, How to Reduce Shootings, points out that the U.S. has more guns than any other country, with over 300 million guns, about one for every citizen, and a gun murder rate higher than most other countries. He feels guns should be at least as regulated as automobiles.8,9
- Restrict or reduce the marketing and selling of military-level assault weapons designed for military conflicts and mass casualties.
- Become more aware of and avoid being influenced by false information from media or news outlets, political propaganda, and rhetoric that fosters the growth of hate, racism, discrimination, division, hatred, and violence.
I appreciate your interest in a topic that has affected too many tragically. I hope that wisdom will prevail and resolve this enduring crisis in our nation. Please share this article with others. Thanks, Ron Parks, MD xx(Share button)
I look forward to any feedback, response to my articles and posts, or questions I can respond to and answer. All comments are valued and give direction to our continued work and guidance in meeting the needs of our readers. xx(Comment button)
Special thanks to Shan Parks for his excellent final read-through and editor’s eye.
Caption for featured image: Guns, mental illness, anger by RRP with Canva help & stock photos
1 Mass shooting vs. active shooter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massshooting – A mass shooting is a crime in which an attacker kills or injures multiple individuals simultaneously using a firearm. In the United States, the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 defines mass killings as three or more killings in a single incident; https://community.fema.gov › ProtectiveActions › s › article › Active-Shooter-What; Active Shooter | What – FEMA “The Interagency Security Committee (ISC) defines an active shooter as an individual or individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. In most cases, firearms are the weapon of choice during active shooter incidents, but any weapon (such as a knife, etc.) can be used to harm innocent individuals.”
2 A Man Called Otto movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbrR3MY7oDI
4 Related articles by Ron Parks, MD: https://www.inmindwise.com/p/the-us-gun-romance-and-harsh-reality; https://www.inmindwise.com/p/gun-violence-gaslighting-and-masking
5 A Year After a School Shooting, Divisions Run Through Uvalde: https://nyti.ms/3OxeiIu?smid=nytcore-android-share;
6 Concise Depression Anxiety Symptom Sheet: https://www.inmindwise.com/p/the-concise-anxiety-depression-help
7 Eight warning signs of a mass shooter: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2022/05/28/8-warning-signs-mass-shooter-according-experts/9966901002/
8 2017 article by Nicholas Kristof, How to Reduce Shootings: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/06/opinion/how-to-reduce-shootings.html;
9 2023 article by Nicholas Kristof, A Smarter Way to Reduce Gun Deaths https://gunandsurvival.com/2023/01/26/nicholas-kristof-a-smarter-way-to-reduce-gun-deaths/