REPORT: Mental Illness Not Always Key Factor In Mass Shootings
Nikolas Cruz, who methodically went up and
down the hallways of his former Florida high school on Valentine’s Day,
killing 17 people, had a history of threatening others. Adam Lanza, who
killed almost two dozen children in a Connecticut school in 2012,
struggled with developmental disorders and was on psychiatric
medication, which he had stopped taking. Jiverly Wong was suspected of
suffering from paranoia before he walked into the American Civics
Association in New York in 2009 and murdered 13 people.
The most recent mass killing in Florida last month has reignited the
debate over the extent to which mental illness plays a role in such
violence, and even about what is meant by mental illness. The horror at
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High also is shining a light on the
contradictory views among prominent criminology and mental health
experts about mental illness as a risk factor in mass shootings.
In a study of 185 public mass shootings– defined as an incident in which
four or more people are killed at a public location – from 1900 through
2017 criminologist Grant Duwe found that 59 percent were committed by
people who had been diagnosed as mentally ill or showed signs of having
a serious mental disorder before the attack.
“Typically what we see with those who carry out a mass public shooting
is that they do suffer from a mental disorder, in some cases it’s
diagnosable, or there’s some information from friends and family that
indicates they suffered from mental illness,” said Duwe, who is the
research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author
of “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.”
“Paranoid schizophrenia is what is more
common among these individuals,” Duwe told Fox News. “They feel like
large groups of people are out to get them, and that they are
responsible for making their life miserable. We also see that
individuals who do this are loners, they’re not trusting, so they don’t
have close friendships of social relationships.”
Mother Jones, the left-leaning publication, compiled a database of mass
shootings going back to 1982, and found that about half involved some
form of “mental health issue.” They included people who had been
diagnosed with serious conditions, but also those who had domestic
violence and work conflict histories.
An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety released last year showed that
in mass killings between January 2009 and December 2016, the shooter
displayed at least one red flag, or troubling behavior, in 42 percent of
At the same time, many studies on mass shootings and mental illness show
a smaller link.
Many widely cited studies, including
some conducted by the National Institutes of Health, on gun violence
show that anywhere between 4 and 20 percent of the incidents are caused
by people with a serious mental illness.
Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at
Duke University who specializes in gun violence and mental illness,
conducted a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health
that found that 4 percent of gun and other violence is traceable to
schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression – the three mental health
conditions most frequently found in violent incidents.
Swanson says the role of mental illness is overplayed after a shooting
that grips at the country.
A mass shooting is so disturbing, so irrational, and horrifying, people
want to know why is happened, and mental illness is the perfect master
- Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry at Duke University
“A mass shooting is so disturbing, so irrational, and horrifying, people
want to know why it happened, and mental illness is the perfect master
explanation,” said Swanson to Fox News.
What is more common among perpetrators of mass shootings, Swanson said,
are potentially red flag behaviors such as festering anger, alienation,
and bitterness over being bullied, perhaps, that do not meet the
threshold of a mental disorder -- and that may not be perceptible even
to those close to the person -- but that can lead to violence. Substance
abuse is a common thread in mass shootings, found to be a factor in
nearly 40 percent of shooters.
“If we were to cure mental illness, all of it, tomorrow, how much of our
violence problem would go down? It would go down about 4 percent,” said
Swanson, who has studied the issue for the National Institutes of
Health. “The mass shooters, with some exception, have been angry,
alienated, emotionally troubled young men who act out these incredibly
deviant cultural scripts and have access to firearms.”
“There are tons of people who are
risky, who are angry or suicidal, but who would pass a background
check,” Swanson said. “They don’t have a felony conviction, they’ve
never been involuntarily committed. How do you make sure dangerous
people don’t get access to firearms?”
Duwe argues that the role of mental illness in mass shootings is
“Part of the blowback with connecting mental illness to mass shootings
is the fear that mentally ill people will be stigmatized,” Duwe said,
adding that the concern is a valid one. “That’s what we try to be
careful with, most of the people with serious mental illness are not
“But we should not ignore the connection between mental illness and mass
shootings that is very real,” said Duwe, who recently co-authored an
op-ed on the issue in The Los Angeles Times. “The issue has become very
politicized, like tribal warfare.”
A major obstacle to a better system for predicting who might commit a
mass shooting, experts say, is that it is relatively rare, and more
funding is needed to study it more in-depth.
Many studies differ in their definition of mental illness, with some
looking at diagnosable conditions, others only at serious ones such as
paranoid schizophrenia, and still others taking a broad approach,
including more common things such as attention deficit disorder and
“It’s an elastic boundary, a rubber ruler,” Swanson said. “About 48
million people in the U.S. have some kind of diagnosable mental
We should not ignore the connection between mental illness and mass
shootings that is very real. The issue has become very politicized, like
- Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of
What is more, not all studies or news reports look at the same
categories of violence when addressing the role of mental illness, Duwe
and Swanson noted.
Some look at all violence, others look at mass killings (which may or
may not involve guns), and still others look at mass shootings that
don’t occur in a public place or that targets strangers – such as when a
disgruntled fired employee commits workplace violence or someone kills
four or more people in a household or when a criminal kills several
people in the course of say a robbery.
“There has not been systematic assessment of mass shooters” that would
meet scientific criteria, Swanson said. “We often are operating on the
basis of sketchy information” about a perpetrators'odd behavior.
Gun rights advocates say the answer is not curbing Second Amendment
rights, but acting more responsibly when behavioral “red flags” are
observed, as they were in the case of Cruz in Florida. They argue that
the massacre likely would never have happened if law enforcement
officials had simply done their job and investigated numerous leads
suggesting Cruz had mental illness issues.
One approach gaining momentum is Red Flag Laws, which allow relatives
and officials to seek a court order to remove guns from dangerous
people. Five states have the laws, and Red Flag measures are pending in
roughly 20 others.
In a written statement, the FBI said a person close to Cruz contacted
the agency's tip line Jan. 5 to report concerns about "Cruz’s gun
ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing
social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school
Florida does not have a Red Flag Law.
"Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller
should have been assessed as a potential threat to life," the FBI said.
In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday,
the leader of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre said that
opponents of gun rights want to "sweep under the carpet" the failure of
school safety, families "and even the unbelievable failure of the FBI"
to prevent the shootings. LaPierre made the case that there is room for
the gun lobby and gun control advocates to find common ground.
Efforts by Fox News to get a comment from the NRA were unsuccessful.
Bonnie Zampino, a behavioral health professional who trains educators,
among others, on how to manage people with mental illness and behavioral
issues, said it’s important that school officials, counselors, families
and law enforcement work together and establish communication lines when
a young person begins exhibiting so-called red flag that might lead to
Often, she said, efforts to address such behaviors are disjointed or
have no follow-up.
“This young man was exhibiting behaviors that would indicate that he had
been exposed to trauma in life, he received medical care, he was
evaluated, they didn’t find the need for further care,” said Zampino of
Cruz, based on published information.
“It’s our job to be the professional who can look at the behavior, meet
the need, stop the aggression,” said Zampino, who has an autistic child.
“But [too often] we’re not paying enough attention, we’re not talking to
“Here we help teachers understand when they see a child coming into
their classroom that clearly shows an issue and they’re being
aggressive, how to get ahead of that behavior and deal with the trauma
and how not to trigger the aggression,” she said. “We teach teachers
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be
reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.