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The U.S. Gun Romance and Harsh Reality of Gun Deaths

A close look at the history, key contributing factors, mental health-related issues, and needed changes

Gun violence has been a major issue in the U.S. for too long. I felt it worthwhile to examine the historical context, key contributing factors, and critical mental health-related issues. My goal? To increase awareness and perspective and develop a reasonable discussion about reducing gun deaths. Join me in exploring a subject of critical concern for the safety and well-being of our community.

In the United States, gun romance is alive and well. It has been part of our culture for centuries and is deeply ingrained in the national identity. From the Wild West to the modern day, guns symbolize strength, freedom, and even heroism. Unfortunately, many of us are familiar with the harsh reality of gun deaths in America today. From mass shootings to suicides to accidental deaths, gun violence has become a national tragedy. It’s time to break the cycle of gun violence and work together to create a safer future for all.

The Gun Romance

Our history as a nation is one of fierce independence and the struggle for freedom. The lure and stories about our efforts to be free and a sovereign nation abound with conflict and open warfare to overcome tyrants and oppressors. The adversaries are subdued and overcome by superior courage and perseverance accomplished in our earliest history with the use of long guns against knives and bows and arrows. In the revolutionary wars, the weaponry was similar, but the patriots had the advantage with the knowledge of the terrain, support of the local citizenry, and close-at-hand supplies. With the expansions of our country to its westernmost reaches, guns protected against hostile adversaries in the conquest for land and protection of livestock and family.

Guns were necessary to hunt for food and protect farm animals from predators. In our civil war and later with the involvement in foreign wars, the technology of firearms advanced to accomplish mass causalities. The instruments of fighting became more deadly, from cannons to military aircraft, rocketry, and bombs. Even with the tragedy of war, the romance of an individual with a gun continues the mystique of independence, control, and power. The recreational viewing of violent media stories and movies has plots revolving around the villain who has to be overcome by the superior use of weaponry, usually a firearm.

The fascination with guns and ownership continues, with the increased sales of firearms every year, including military assault-like weapons. Media and marketing are undoubtedly important contributors to this trend. Some consider owning a gun a necessity and imperative to being a proud and patriotic citizen. There is the belief that having a high-powered gun increases one’s sense of security, prowess, and the means to be a hunter. A firearm becomes a valuable asset if one feels the need to protect their family or property or is a hunter, collector, gang member, or criminal. 

Growing up, I watched westerns and crime shows and played cowboys, cops, and robbers like most kids. Violence and weapons were commonly part of the storyline in comic books, television, and video games. However, rarely today do movies, video games, or T.V. programs teach about the safe use of weapons or the consequences of bringing fantasy violence into the real world.

The Tragedy, Issues, and Statistics

When young, I had a friend whose father committed suicide. His father was a military veteran who suffered from war trauma and depression, alcohol abuse, and reliance on pain medication. After losing his job, he became increasingly despondent, killing himself with one of his prized possessions, a gun once his pride and joy, and a remembrance from his military days. In the tragic circumstance of my friend’s father’s unfortunate death, the underlying causes, I surmised, may have been multiple factors that contributed to his painful death. Many factors undoubtedly contribute to gun-related deaths, including suicides, homicides, lethal shootings in disputes, revenge, criminal activity, accidents related to a gun, and incidences of mass shootings.

The contributors commonly discussed include:

• Problems with accessibility, more people having guns, and lack of firearm regulations

• Significant social-economic disparities, disadvantages of poverty, and discrimination against minorities

• Mental health-related difficulties and lack of services

• Radicalization of vulnerable minds to hate and kill adversaries by extreme political discourse, hate groups, and propaganda

According to The Gun Violence Archive, gun deaths have been at about 40,000 yearly in recent years. Suicides get less attention than gun-related murders but have long accounted for a higher percentage of United States gun deaths. According to the Pew Research Center, six out of ten gun deaths occur from suicides, and three-quarters of all U.S. murders involve firearms.1 Firearm possession and ownership of guns, including assault-like weapons, are at an all-time high and, according to research, are a major contributor to the growing number of gun-related deaths and mass shootings. More guns are now readily available for potentially violent people at considerable risk of endangering themselves and others.

Car crashes have been the leading cause of child deaths for decades. But now, guns are number one in 2020, according to a recent NPR article.2 Auto-related deaths have continued as a leading cause worldwide for children and young adults ages 5 to 29. Deaths related to motor vehicles have improved with urban planning and roadways, regulation of ownership, and licensing laws which appear to have benefited the U.S. compared to other countries. The benefits of motor vehicle policies and regulations may give some direction for policymakers to reduce firearms deaths.3

The Giffords Law Center found states with stronger gun regulation had lower gun death rates. The data is robust that more guns and looser gun laws result in more gun-related deaths and injuries.4

There is credible research, both at home and abroad, showing that regulations such as licensing curb firearm deaths for all, not just young people. For instance, background checks on ammunition purchases, restrictions on ammunition purchases, and I.D. requirements for firearms result in reduced gun deaths.5  

There is growing support for reviving the 1994 federal assault weapons ban to decrease access to dangerous semiautomatic weapons.6 However, the forward movement to make changes is slow as the stalemate persists, with the polarized political ideology about guns, rights of ownership, resistance to governmental regulation, and licensing—while gun-related deaths continue to be a growing statistic. The debate continues about the critical issues and contributors to the deaths from gun violence, suicides, homicides, accidental shooting of bystanders, or victims of stray bullets.

Predisposing Factors to Gun Violence, Self-harm, or Harm to Others

• Easy and ready access to firearms, especially when an individual is prone to acting out violently toward others or one’s self, especially if a history of a troubled personality with proneness to unstable moods, anger, rage, or engagement in ideas of extreme rage, hatred, or revenge
• Paranoid, anti-social, borderline, narcissistic, or inflexible personalities with the propensity to delusional or psychotic states or fixation with irrational beliefs or feelings, at risk of acting out with a weapon
• Vulnerabilities because of drug or alcohol abuse and addiction and other mental health issues such 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 a desperate need to feel a part of a social group, even if it is an extreme group found on social media
• 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 communications from others
• Inadequate social functioning with the lack of the skill and mental/emotional stability—possibly with a history of abuse and trauma or growing up in an unsupportive, dysfunctional or abusive family
• Over influenced by the media, befriended by an extremist or online hate group, 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, and proneness to explosive anger or rage acts out with a lethal weapon.

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, incompetent 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 to psychiatric care or legal incarceration for their protection or protecting others.

People can be vulnerable to the influence of harmful leaders or media that put out propaganda, hate and racist ideologies, and seductive messages to gain followers. The rhetoric might drive fear or advocate for righteous action, retribution, or violence against perceived enemies, oppressors, or wrongdoers. A persuasive message may support indifference and rejection of authority or promise notoriety, fame, or importance of serving a higher cause and taking inspired violent action.

The power of social media and propaganda influences and corrupts vulnerable minds, often with mental health issues such as severe depression or developmental difficulties, where feelings of alienation, isolation, and loneliness abound. No doubt extreme passions and murderous inclinations come from a deeper primitive place that our evolution or supposed enlightenment hasn’t eradicated. Social scientists consider humans to be herd animals. So, individuals desperate to find meaning, purpose, acceptance, friendship, and especially membership in a group are very susceptible to social media and persuasive by the rhetoric promoting hatred and divisiveness. Media and journalist sensationalism also promotes the copycat phenomena. Social media often presents to the avid news consumer a captivating caricature of the killer, such as a revenger with distorted and crazed thinking.

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 or developmental and trauma-influenced disturbances, bipolar or schizophrenic-like illnesses.

The more fixed or obsessional thinking becomes, the less one can learn from social contact. There is also the inability to learn from reliable information or feedback from others. As a result, the person loses the ability to learn and modify behavior adequately and participate in regular social activities. In the extreme, the person loses the intrinsic checks and balances of mental flexibility and reasoning.

Incidences of mass shootings occur when a disgruntled team member with resentment toward other workers gets a single or arsenal of guns or assault weapons with ammunition. Often, there is a long history of personality and mental health problems. A term used was “going postal”—a reference to the mass shootings in postal facilities by a disgruntled and disturbed team member.7 A more recent incident was of a nighttime supervisor in a Walmart who grievances with several coworkers and murdered several victims with a gun.8

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. Important 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. The bias that mental health issues are the main reason behind the high murder rate in the U.S. has proven false. Research and statistical accounting have shown that the percentage of mental health issues is about the same in most other countries compared to the U.S., with the predominant factor being the much higher number of guns owned in the U.S.9

Frustration Over Lack of Progress in Curbing Gun Violence

There is much concern and frustration that beneficial action to limit or better-regulated ownership and possession 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 to other economically developed countries.

The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but more than about 30% of all mass public shootings occur in this country.10,11 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.12

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 noteworthy number to be wounded or killed. Therefore, gun laws, access to guns, and 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.

TIPS

1. More attention should go to the families and survivors of the tragedy of losing loved ones to gun violence, and less media focus on the perpetrators.

2. Be an advocate for gun safety and regulation and an increase in mental health funding and services—these actions can bring positive changes in community services, government, and administrative actions

3. Positive advocacy 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 find 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

4. Increase public education about the warning signs of emotional and mental health disturbances and their related potential for violence

5. Reduce the burden on the criminal and legal system by directing more funding toward drug treatment, and rehabilitation, and reducing factors that contribute to drug addiction and use

6. 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 letting public funds support all public office seekers—removing hidden money donations from Political Action Committee (PACs), wealthy individuals, businesses, or corporations—set limits on all contributions and require transparency

7. Support the election of sensible candidates that are public servants who have the interests of the people they serve as the priority

8. Support funding and legislation that promotes gun registration, licensing, and education about safe firearm use

9. Restrict or reduce the marketing and selling of military-level assault rifles and weapons designed for military conflicts

10. 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

11. 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

12. Increase the monitoring and study of violence in the entertainment and video gaming industry that may affect vulnerable individuals influenced by repeated exposure to violent media

Reach out for support, mental health service, or a support group if you have lost a meaningful other, family member, or community member—especially if you feel isolated, suffer from loss, or are experiencing sleep or mood problems.

Citizens and leaders need to work together and take action to prevent gun violence by working together 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, who is affected by it, and what steps are critical for prevention.

This article aims to provide some historical context and a framework to better engage in discussions surrounding the issues of gun violence. I hope that wisdom will prevail and necessary changes will occur.

For questions or consultation with Dr. Parks, click here.  

The article was originally published on Mind Wise with tips, references, and resources.

#GunDeaths #gunviolence #gunreform #mentalhealthcrisis #mooddisturbance #suicide


1. Pew Research Center, August 16, 2019, Gun deaths in the U.S.: 10 key questions answered | Pew Research Center

2. NPR 04/22/22 article on Firearms as a leading cause of death in children https://www.npr.org/2022/04/22/1094364930/firearms-leading-cause-of-death-in-children

3. Article in the Conversation.com about Deaths and Injuries in Road Crashes a Silent Epidemic on Wheels

4. Article in NYTtimes.com “How to Reduce Shootings”  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/06/opinion/how-to-reduce-shootings.html

5. Article in www.vox.com/future perfect on “Gun Violence, Cars, Crashes, Firearms, Deaths, Youth”  https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/23151852/gun-violence-cars-crashes-firearms-deaths-youth

6. Article in www.aafp.org  about Policies on Gun Violence, https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/gun-violence.html

7. 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)

8. Article from theconversation.com, Workplace Killers: people kill their colleagues for different reasons than other shooters, published: November 28, 2022 

9. Article the www.NYtimes.comWhy Does the U.S. Have So Many Mass Shootings? Research Is Clear: Guns, By Max Fisher and Josh Keller, Nov. 7, 2017,    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html  

10. Mass Shooting, Wikipedia Encyclopedia Online, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_shooting, April 2021

11. 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

12. Mass School Shooting—Insanity or Guns?—Integrative Psychiatry Online, Ron Parks, MD (parksmd.com)

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