Guns are killing us, not mental illness

Guns are killing us, not mental illness
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When I served in the U.S. House of Representatives, I wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, I am concerned about efforts to blame mental illness and people with disabilities as a cause for the mass shootings that plague our country. 

Leading the erroneous charge is President TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Poll: 30 percent of GOP voters believe Trump will 'likely' be reinstated this year Black Secret Service agent told Trump it was offensive to hold rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth: report MORE, who says “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger”  in mass shootings, refers to perpetrators as “mentally ill monsters,” and suggests a solution of “involuntary confinement” for some with mental illness.

But, sadly, this conflation is not limited to President Trump or Republicans. Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called for “a mental health data base to prevent the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing a firearm."


It is time to stop repeating this false narrative. Whether based on ignorance, discrimination or hate, the belief that ending gun violence can occur by targeting people with mental illness is wrong and a counterproductive red herring.

The research is clear: Mental illness is not a predictor of violence.

According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics and other sources, people with mental illness account for a minuscule fraction of violence — less than 5 percent.  

People who experience mental illness are extraordinarily unlikely to engage in violent acts towards others; in fact, a Bazelon Center review reports more than 25 percent will be the victims of violence. Further, it’s well documented by the FBI and others that gender (male), age (under 24) and a history of domestic violence are far better predictors of future violence. 

Falsely equating white supremacy, hatred and gun violence with mental illness is harmful and wrong. Hatred is not a mental illness. Hatred is a learned behavior. Characterizing it as a mental illness may be politically convenient for some, but it will not stop mass shootings. It serves only to marginalize and fuel bias towards disabled people.  


As someone who has lived with epilepsy my entire adult life, I know stigma when I see it — and it has dangerous consequences. There is no more harmful stereotype for people with psychiatric disabilities than the assumption that they are dangerous. Our country has a long, sordid history of locking people with mental and physical disabilities in institutions in the name of preventing them from doing harm to themselves or others.

By spreading the lie that mental illness leads to mass murder, we oppress people. We make employers afraid to hire people with a mental illness, landlords afraid to rent to them, schools afraid to educate them. Fearing consequences, millions of Americans will hide their disability. Some may even conclude that the risk of seeking treatment outweighs the benefit of the care itself. 

Ending or reducing gun violence in the United States will only occur by measures such as eliminating access to assault weapons. Every country in the world has citizens with long-term mental illness. Yet, no other country experiences the same number of mass shootings. The unsubstantiated scapegoating of mental illness by people in power relieves pressure to address the simple fact that we continue to allow easy access to a wide array of firearms. It’s the guns. 

Meanwhile, leaders like President Trump perpetuate this further, suggesting we “start building institutions again.” Disabled people have fought for decades for our right to live in our communities and make our own decisions about our housing and health care. Not only is institutionalizing people with mental illness and keeping track of them on a public registry incredibly dehumanizing, it is expensive and it does not address the real problem. It's the guns.

The emphasis on mental health is merely a deflection from the need to talk about guns. Sensible, effective gun control laws that do not discriminate against or scapegoat those of us in the disability community are what is needed to address gun violence and prevent mass shootings.

Republicans and Democrats alike must stop promoting this false narrative. It oppresses disabled people and does nothing to deal with the root of the problem. Wholesale discrimination against any group of people from our nation is not only a problem for the victims; it's a scourge on our democracy that impacts us all.

Since we can’t rely on President Trump to lead us through this change — we know he’s disrespected and mocked the disability community, beginning with his campaign — then we all must stop associating mental illness with mass shootings. Not only is the stigma factually and morally incorrect, it distracts from what we know — it’s the guns. 

Tony Coelho was a Democratic congressman from California from 1979 to 1989, a former House Majority whip, and the primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He is also the chairman of the Partnership to Improve Patient Care, which promotes a patient-centered health care system.