Mental Health and Gun Violence: Is There a Link?

Gun violence in the U.S. is on the rise. Experts weigh in on its prevalence and any links to mental health.

Medically reviewed by Matthew Boland, PhD — By Tonya Russell and Christina Ward

Young woman holding protest sign that reads: "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH"
jamie grill atlas/Stocksy United

The United States has seen a wave of mass shootings in recent years.

There have been mass shootings at grocery stores, nightclubs, schools, and even places of worship. No place seems safe from gun violence anymore.

While many policymakers are torn about how to handle this epidemic, the blame keeps falling on mental health.

But mental health experts believe that using mental health as a scapegoat doesn’t get us closer to solving the problem — instead, it creates one for people who live with mental health conditions.

Gun violence problems

There’s been an increase in gun violence in the United States over the past few years.

So far in 2022, there have been more than 200 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In 2021, there were 692 mass shootings. The year before ended with 610, and 2019 had 417.

The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive defines mass shootings as any shooting in which four or more people are injured or killed at one location or event.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)Trusted Source, more than 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in 2020 — that’s more than 100 people each day dying from a gun-related injury.

In 2020, gun-related injuries were among the five leading causesTrusted Source of death in the United States for people ages 1 to 44.

Mass shootings can occur anywhere, from supermarkets and crowded events to malls and schools.

Experts believe this increase may be due to the rise in gun sales that soared to all-time highs in 2020 with gun sales reaching an estimated 21 million.

According to the FBI, nearly 3 million background checks for firearms were done each month from November 2021 to April 2022.

Gun violence affects everyone at some level, but rates can vary by state, demographics, race, ethnicity, and age.

Fast stats

  • The majority (53%Trusted Source) of gun-related U.S. fatalities are deaths by suicide.
  • More than 45,000Trusted Source people lost their lives due to gun violence in 2020, an almost 14% rise from the previous year and a 25% rise from 5 years earlier.
  • More than 4 out of every 10 (43%) gun-related deaths in 2020 were homicides.
  • Mississippi had the highest number of gun-related deaths in 2020 (28.6 deaths per 100,000 people), while Hawaii had the lowest (3.4 deaths per 100,000 people).
  • Since 2018, there have been more than 100 school shootings, with the highest number of shootings (34) occurring in 2021.
  • Gun-related homicides are highest amongTrusted Source teens and young adults ages 15 to 34 and among Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native populations.
  • Males account for 86% of gun-related deathsTrusted Source and 87% of nonfatal gun-related injuries.
  • Males (96%) had more police-involved shooting deaths than females (4%).
  • An estimated 30% of adults in the U.S. report owning a gun, and 4 in 10 say they live in a household with a gun.
  • An estimated 19 million guns were sold in 2021, the second-highest year for gun sales behind 2020, which saw an estimated 21 million guns sold.
  • Police-involved shootings affect Black and Latino populations at more than twice the rate of white populations in the United States.

Gun violence and mental health

There’s been a common misconception that people with mental health conditions carry out mass shootings.

Past president administrations even suggested that monitoring people living with mental health conditions could prevent future gun violence.

Experts believe that every time someone draws the conclusion that a person with a mental health condition is to blame for a tragic event, it adds to the stigma.

Ashley McGirt, MSW, a racial trauma specialist, international speaker, and author in Seattle, explains, “Portraying those with mental illness as violent further stigmatizes mental illness. The reality is that 1 in 4 of us has a mental illness. We are likely to encounter someone every day living with a mental condition, and we are not in danger because of it.”

2021 article found that an estimated 4% of violent acts toward others could be contributed to mental health conditions alone. Research from 2021 notes that there’s no conclusive evidence that mental health conditions cause violent behavior or are predictors of gun-related crimes.

Despite this, many still point to mental health as a cause of gun-related violence.

But blaming people with mental health conditions may negatively affect the likelihood that someone will seek treatment when they need it.

Signs of gun violence

Many times, people who want to hurt themselves or others show some warning signs before they carry out the act.

According to McGirt, one of the most common signs often overlooked is a history of gun violence. “Having a past history of gun violence can be a tell-tale sign that an individual will reengage with gun violence,” she says.

McGirt also says that past issues with anger and having easy access to firearms can be a warning sign.

Other potential warning signs include:

  • making direct threats to a place, person, or themselves
  • suddenly withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • becoming more isolated
  • expressing feelings of chronic loneliness
  • increased irritability, lack of patience, or becoming angry quickly
  • bragging about access to guns or other types of weapons
  • bragging about or acquiring a large number of guns, ammunition, or other types of tactical gear (such as bulletproof vests)
  • talking about plans to harm a place, person, or themselves
  • bullying, especially toward people of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion
  • highly focused on prior shootings and incidents of gun violence
  • suddenly and quickly giving away personal belongings

Of course, this isn’t a complete list of warning signs, and showing one or more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an attack.

The scenarios for gun violence can vary. Every incident of gun violence is not the same.

Gun violence trauma 

Not everyone involved in gun violence dies.

An ever-present fear and anxiety may follow survivors and their loved ones, long after the incident occurred. This could look like being afraid to visit places where the shooting occurred, like a mall or a supermarket.

An estimated one-third of adults in the United States say fear of mass shootings prevents them from going to certain events or places, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Older research has also shown that up to two-thirds of people exposed to violence — including gun violence — may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The first responders who care for the people involved in a gun incident are also at risk of developing PTSD.

Other mental health effectsTrusted Source of gun violence can include:

Frequently asked questions

What are types of gun violence?

There are different forms of gun violence. Some common ones include:

  • Homicide. This type of violence applies to shootings that involve killing someone else.
  • Suicide. This is when a firearm is used to kill oneself. More than 50%Trusted Source of suicides are carried out with a firearm.
  • Accidental shooting. Firearm accidents happen quite often. In 2021, they accounted for more than 2,000 shootings.
  • Legal intervention. The CDC uses this description to include injuries inflicted by the police or other law enforcement persons during legal courses of action, such as an arrest.

What types of people commit gun violence?

Many things have been linked to gun violence: video games, cartoons, and violent music are only a few. Some people have even tried to link race, income, and education level.

But research suggests some factors may increase the likelihood of gun violence:

  • history of violence, including domestic violence
  • alcohol or substance use
  • increased availability of weapons
  • family problems
  • media influence
  • being young and male
  • personal history of physical or sexual abuse or traumaTrusted Source

Where can I report gun violence?

If you feel threatened or are suspicious of troubling behaviors, tell a trusted individual, such as:

  • a parent
  • the boss
  • human resources
  • the police
  • a pastor or rabbi
  • a teacher

If there’s an immediate threat, call 911 or local emergency services.

What are some solutions to gun violence?

Gun violence is a serious public health issue. No matter the type of gun violence — homicide, suicide, or a mass shooting — or the cause, there are ways to help prevent it.

This issue has been studied in-depth by many scientists and health officials. They concluded that the following ways might help prevent gun violence.

  • Expand background checks for gun sales. Requiring a more thorough background check on every gun sale and transfer, including private and online, will help lower the number of guns available for violent acts.
  • Ban the sale of assault weapons and their accessories. Preventing the sale of large-capacity weapons, such as assault rifles and large ammunition, often used in mass shootings can help prevent them.
  • Focus gun violence policies and prevention measures appropriately. Instead of focusing on mental health as the cause, it’s important to avoid harmful stereotypes and use appropriate language when discussing gun violence.
  • Federally fund extreme risk protection order laws. These laws would help assess whether someone is at risk of suicide, and instead of focusing on mental diagnoses, they would focus on risk behaviors.
  • Provide funding and training for behavioral threat assessment programs. These programs can help identify people who show risk factors for violence.
  • Train healthcare professionals on lethal means counseling. This will help healthcare professionals be more prepared to ask about access to firearms and provide counseling when necessary.

How can I get involved?

If you want to know more about how to get involved, visit:

Let’s recap

The bottom line: Linking mental health conditions with all gun violence is short-sighted.

Gun violence is complicated, and there are many approaches to prevention. But one of the most important things we can do as a community is to start the conversation, framed in a way that eliminates mental health as the culprit.

No two tragedies are the same, and no one demographic can take the blame for a continuous problem.

There can be a change only when we acknowledge that the issue is bigger than one cause and solution. Identifying and implementing changes in policies and procedures on a federal, state, and community level are the only way we’ll see a significant change in gun violence.

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