Mental Illness and Gun Ownership in America



In February 2017, President Donald Trump signed a bill, blocking an Obama-era rule that would have prevented people with mental disorders from buying guns. The rule was part of former President Barack Obama’s push to strengthen the federal background check system in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.


President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Feb. 28, 2017. (Credit: Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images)

The regulation under the Obama Administration would have required the Social Security Administration to add about 75,000 people currently on disability support to the national background check database and deny them gun purchases. These individuals suffer from mental impairments and other problems to such an extent that they are unable to manage basic tasks without help.

Both American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) and National Rifle Association (NRA) are for the resolution, as supporters of the Second Amendment and advocates for the mentally ill. These organizations argue that the restrictions would possibly stereotype the mentally ill as violent. However, gun control advocacy organizations such as Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CGSV) is actively fighting back to prohibit the mentally ill from possessing firearms. A recent example in Wellington, Missouri is another reason for gun control advocates to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of the mentally ill.

Instead of taking the regressive measure, the government should fight for stronger gun controls and better mental health care. For example, even if an individual passes the federal background check, he or she should be disarmed for expressing a credible threat to public safety. There needs to be a comprehensive analysis on gun control and mental illness in a broader context. Although not all gun violence is attributable to mental illness, actions to minimize firearm injuries and violence must be taken to avoid another massacre.


9 Responses to “Mental Illness and Gun Ownership in America”

  1. jegreen000 Says:

    Keeping guns out of the hands of potentially violent, mentally ill people seems obviously in the best interest of society. The issue, however, is whether everyone labelled as mentally-ill fits such a potentially violent category. As was recently pointed-out in an article by Beck in The Atlantic, only 4% of violence in the US is attributable to major mental illnesses. The media often gives the impression that mental illness is a major contributor of gun violence, when in fact, it is not. Thus, 96% of violent acts are perpetrated by individuals without mental illness. Stricter background checks of those who wish to purchase a gun, including careful screening of individuals who have been classified as mentally ill, may be a feasible way to reduce gun violence. A major public health issue for guns and mental health is related to the fact that in 2014, there were 21,334 firearm related suicides in the U.S. according the CDC, accounting for about half of all suicides in the country. While stricter gun control efforts do seem warranted through more thorough background checks (why can someone on the no fly-list purchase a gun?), we need to focus more attention on improving mental health services in this country. Perhaps this will potentially reduce the high incidence of firearm-related suicide.

  2. joannalo91 Says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I agree with your position that the government needs fight for stronger gun control laws. However, your post made me think about those who are not clinically diagnosed with a mental illness. The previous regulation would have missed those individuals and they would have still been eligible to buy a gun. I also agree with Jegreen000 comments that mental illness is not the only contributor of gun violence and your decision for a more comprehensive analysis on gun control is justified.

  3. yasthil23 Says:

    I agree with the stance taken in the above post.

    Central to effective gun policy is being able to identify higher-risk, prohibited persons attempting to buy guns, and to prevent those purchases. The Brady Law is the foundation for the federal government’s attempt to achieve this objective. Before the Brady Law, “gun control” within many states worked on the honor system. Firearm purchasers simply completed a form indicating whether they met any of the exclusion criteria for legal firearm possession, without independent verification of the information provided. With the passage of the Brady bill, gun purchasers buying from a federally licensed firearm dealer are subject to a background check. Since the Brady Law was enacted in 1994, more than 2 million applications to purchase or transfer firearms were denied because the applicant was prohibited from purchasing firearms. Some unknown, but likely larger number of prohibited individuals did not attempt to purchase a firearm because they were legally prohibited.

    But the Brady Law only requires prospective purchasers to pass a background check if they are purchasing the firearm from a licensed firearm dealer. Data from a nationally representative sample of gun owners indicate that 40 percent of firearm acquisitions are from individuals who are not licensed gun dealers. Not surprisingly, criminals exploit the private sales loophole. Data from a national survey of inmates indicated that nearly 80 percent of those who had used a handgun in a crime had acquired it through a transaction with an individual who was not a licensed gun dealer.

    The power of the gun lobby poses a substantial hurdle to enforcing new gun control laws especially in the light of the current administration. They endorsed the president with $30 million during his campaign and it comes as no surprise that the president is now repaying the favor. By signing this Bill into action, the president is widening the already big loophole in the Brady Law which allows easier access to guns, but this time from licensed gun dealers.

  4. sbfphc Says:

    Just this week the Washington Post published an article, which is more like a case study, on the purchase of a gun my a mentally ill person, who later used it to kill her father. The mother had begged the gun seller not to allow her daughter to buy a gun, but to no avail. One wonders if profits are more important than lives, at least three of which were destroyed in this process. Please read, “Despite a mother’s plea, her mentally ill daughter was sold a firearm. Here’s why she sued” at

  5. rachelsinit Says:

    I agree that with your position that we have to work on both fronts, increasing gun control and increasing mental health support. Personally, it is still unbelievable that after all the mass shootings (especially the Sandy Hook shooting) that we cannot get common sense gun regulations in this country. According to this Pew Research article (, there is bipartisan support for laws to prevent mentally ill from buying guns (Democrats 79% and Republicans: 81%) but the President continues to politicize the issue resulting in decreasing our already minimal gun regulations.
    Recently, I was talking to an ex-military guy about guns control and the way he put it was that, after being in the military, he still feels the need to carry around a gun all the time or else he feels “naked.” The problem is that what if that person carrying a gun decides to go out to a bar and gets intoxicated. I would definitely feel less safe knowing that this person who is under the influence is also carrying a deadly weapon. I feel this parallels the issue of those with serious mental issues. If a person is suffering from severe hallucinations and imagines someone attacking them, they could start shooting things that aren’t there and inadvertently hurt someone or themselves.

  6. silveirangela Says:

    This was an interesting read, especially since it rings true within the Baltimore area. It is important to keep guns at a safe distance from the mentally ill, however, not all people suffering form mental illnesses are necessary violent. Although the major outlook that is portrayed by the media is that violent acts are committed by those suffering form mental illness, it is rarely the case. One practical approach is to perhaps ask for a clearance letter from a physician to screen out individuals who can possibly be mental ill. There is also a need to focus on energy towards increasing supportive services for those suffering from mental illness.

    Although the Brady law reduced many individuals to purchase a firearm because they were legally prohibited, the issue still lies with people purchasing firearms through illegal measures and unlicensed gun dealers. This entire population is unrepresented in the data that is collected. Data suggests that 20 percent of those in possession of a handgun had acquired it from a licensed gun dealer which means the rest obtained firearms from illegal means.

    More attention to detail needs to be focused on improving the availability of mental health services and have stricter gun control strategies.

  7. euijaekim Says:

    Thank you very much for your interesting blog!
    I remember that there were mass shootings in Virginia, Tucson, and Aurora which are committed by gunmen who suffered from serious mental illness. I would like to focus on the fact that those gunmen legally purchased guns and killed others. From the past tragedies, I agree with your point that minimizing firearm injuries and violence must be taken to avoid another massacre. To do so, I believe that more efforts to keep guns away from individuals with disabilities should be followed by national level. At the same time, it is also important to know that major people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others and that most violent behaviors of people with metal dosprder are due to factors other than mental illness.

  8. eschlot1 Says:

    Very well-written perspective. As some of the previous commentors have noted, mental illness is not necessarily the sole contributor to gun purchases and massacres (although one could question the sanity of a person who commits such atrocities). Your call for more comprehensive analysis into gun violence is definitely justified. I would be curious to know why there is such a dearth of research to-date, however. Why have more individuals, universities, or nations not researched the causes of gun violence more thoroughly?

  9. yh3jung Says:

    Interesting topic! I understand the concern that mental defectives could relatively lack the mental capacity to control themselves. In fact, Obama’s bill is preventing many people, at least 75,000 people receiving disability support, from buying guns. I don’t agree with Trump that emphasizes individual freedom to own guns. However, I don’t think that Obama’s bill would be the best solution to protect American’s right to life. Rather, it can reinforce the stigma against mental illness and socially marginalize persons diagnosed with mental illness. Many population-based studies found that mental illness is not more likely to commit crimes (even mass shooting) compared to others. In the other hand, alcohol and drug use increase the violent crime rate by persons, even who don’t have mental diseases. Moreover, the Obama’s bill can cover only people receiving mental health care through Social Security. Patients who get treatments would be better to self-control than those who are not included in Social Security. I think the only effective strategies about gun control could be complete gun ban for all, except some people under the specific circumstances, such as soldiers, not passive, biased ban for limited people.

    Metzl JM, MacLeish KT. Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(2):240-249. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302242.

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