Op-ed: The Lone Wolf/Mental Health Claim About Gun Violence in America Is a Dangerous Diversion

by | Jun 3, 2022 | Gun violence, Opinion, Public Health

In a press conference last week after the standard litany of prayers and thoughts was offered, Texas Governor Greg Abbott tried to pass off, once again, the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, and mass shootings in general, as attributable to lone wolves with mental health issues. He said that long guns have been available to 18-year-olds in Texas for 60 years, and that the only reason for the mass shootings of recent times is a significant decline in mental health.  

I am sorry, Governor Abbott, and anyone else that tosses out this tiresome, broken record of an argument: There is no evidence, and no logic, that supports this false claim. It is simply a diversion for those who don’t want to or are afraid to address the multiple and broader factors that have been contributing to the grossly outsized rates of gun violence that have plagued this country for years.

It is not that mental health plays no role, and one could argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on the mental health of many people over the past two years. But school shootings like this one have been a shocking recurrence at least since the Columbine incident, way back in 1999. To make this kind of argument, it would be necessary to show that we as a society have far more mental health issues than we did 60 years ago, to a degree that correlates with the explosion of gun violence and mass shootings that have occurred since that time, and to explain why. It would also be necessary to show that the U.S. experiences far more mental health issues than all the other major developed countries that do not have such a constant barrage of these horrific shootings, or, for that matter, the daily round of gun violence that occurs with far less media attention in cities across the nation. Neither Governor Abbott, nor anyone else, can actually provide that evidence.

A few statistics compiled in a 2021 CNN report are telling. The U.S. is the only country in the world where civilian guns outnumber people. The 2019 mortality rate from gun violence in the U.S. was 18 times higher than the average rate in other developed countries. Significantly, the rate in the U.S. is eight times greater than in Canada, even though Canada has the seventh highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Finally, between 1998 and 2019, no other developed country experienced more than eight mass shooting incidents during that time, while the United States had over one hundred.

What does this suggest? Setting aside for now key factors of gun availability, legislation and politics, let me just point to one factor. In contrast to the default “lone wolf with mental health issues” caricature, there are widespread social norms that support, and in some cases, even applaud, the use of guns as a way to resolve personal disputes and issues, as a cultural matter. In recent years, that supportive culture has been amped up exponentially by the proliferation of social media sites and networks that glorify gun use for any number of reasons, including the pursuit of white supremacist aims, culture wars, and personal grievances (to be clear, I am not talking about ordinary sites that are associated with hunting or sport/target shooting here). 

Look at almost every shooting of this kind – whether in a school, in a church, or a supermarket, and you will often find it accompanied by, and preceded by, the shooter’s celebritization of himself on social media and/or celebritization of others who came before. So in reality, those purported “lone wolves” are not acting alone – they are joining a cadre of others who have perpetrated mass shootings before them. They are following what is now an established behavioral option for the aggrieved. Yet it was not an established option 60 years ago, and it is not an established option in Canada, or Japan, or the U.K, or in any other major developed country where gun violence rates are nowhere close, even when people do own guns.  

It takes a village, it is said, to raise a child. So instead of pointing to the child, we had better pay closer attention to the village. What are we doing, or allowing, that supports acceptance of this kind of outcome? To honor the victims and the families, we need to stop repeating lame excuses and take a hard look.

Mark Edberg, is a professor of prevention, community health and anthropology at the George Washington University

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