On September 16, 2013 at the Navy Yard section of Washington, D.C. a lone gunman took the lives of 12 people and wounded four more. Sadly, multiple shooting incidents have become more frequent.
A study by Scripps Howard News Service found that from 1980 through 2010, there were 20,223 cases of homicide involving at least two victims. The same study found at least 994 acts of mass murder, generally defined as the killing of four or more people in a single incident.
On average, there were about 32 acts of mass murder each year during the last 31 years (Scripps Howard News Service). The Scripps study did not include the New Town; Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, and the five other mass murders that occurred between 2011 and 2013 (Mother Jones).
In the aftermath of the Navy Yard shootings, experts are asking the same question: Are mass homicides preventable?
It is likely that a consensus among experts is that it is nearly impossible to completely prevent gun-related mass murders. However, they believe we can significantly reduce such incidents via preventive measures. Unfortunately, formulating a prevention model is problematic because it is difficult to come up with a national consensus about the root cause of mass murders and gun violence.
Varying points of view on causation include:
- Gun advocates who believe mental illness is the main cause;
- Those who are strongly anti-guns (especially assault rifles) would argue that gun control legislation is the key to greatly reducing all gun violence, including mass murder; and
- Others who feel it is a combination of easy access to assault rifles and inadequate screening of gun purchasers for mental illness is the main cause of the persistent pattern of mass murders over the years.
It seems logical that a first step in preventing mass gun-related killings would be to greatly reduce the availability of, or eliminate assault weapons such as the AR-15 that are capable of killing or severely wounding many people in a very short period of time. It is important to note that the average time it takes a mass murderer, from the first shot to the last, is less that 15 minutes to initiate and complete a massacre. This is because with the rapid firing capability and the availability of high capacity clips, a huge volley of bullets can be discharged in a matter of seconds. Therefore, it would seem unreasonable to ignore the need for legislation that limits access to assault rifles and high capacity clips.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the role of mental illness as a factor in many of the incidence of mass murders in America. The assailants in the Navy Yard and New Town shootings and the Arizona shopping center shootings that injured former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and resulted in the death of six people were clearly experiencing mental illness and should not have had access to firearms, especially assault rifles.
While it is possible although politically difficult to put a national ban on ban assault rifles, implementing a national mental illness screening policy as a tool for preventing gun-related mass killing is very tricky and opens up many civil liberty concerns.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) warns against labeling all people with serious mental illnesses as potential mass murders. Data supports NAMI’s concerns. In fact, relatively few people with serious mental illnesses commit a crime of violence as compared to members of society in general. Regrettably, there is a push to create a national mental health registry that would be used by gun stores for screening purposes. Conceptually, a national mental health registry would require each state to report mental health information to a federal database. Due to confidentiality reasons, many mental health advocacy groups are concerned about sharing mental illness information with a federal registry. In addition, many advocates are resistant to a mental health registry because of the potential for increased stigma associated with mental illness. NAMI’s position is that we must guard against using a mental health registry to suggest persons with mental illness are prone to violence.
It has been argued that there are confidentiality safeguards that can be built into mental health registry policies that would protect individuals with mental illness. One suggested safeguard is to only add the names of those that have been judged to be a threat to themselves or others to the federal registry (Boston Globe). NASW is concerned that widespread breeches of confidentiality and misinformation would occur with such a mental health registry. Therefore we oppose this approach.
Finally, discussions of gun violence cannot be complete unless we include the massive number of deaths and severe injuries that are caused by guns on a daily basis in America’s cities. It is ironic that just four days after the Navy Yard tragedy, there was another incident of mass gun related violence. However, this time it was in the Southside of Chicago when 13 young people, including a three-year-old child were shot during a playground dispute with a military-style assault weapon. While this incident was indeed an attempt at mass murder, gun-related urban violence is usually relegated to a special category called black-on-black crime which implies a race-based causation rather than the proliferation of guns or mental illness. This potentially leads to racial disparities in addressing violence.
It is clear that all gun-violence that result in massively high deaths and injuries are both a criminal justice and a public health problem. This means that the development of prevention and early intervention strategies calls for a partnership between legislation/law enforcement (eliminating the purchase of high capacity magazines and assault rifles) and the public health system (such as modifying psychiatric commitment policies that allow for protective commitments that are less stringent that “danger to self and others”). Mass violence has the same result whether it is urban gang violence or isolated mass murder by a mentally ill gunman. They both should be treated with the same sense of urgency.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: Violence and Mental Illness: Myths, Facts, and How Mental Health First Aid Can Help. http://www.namimass.org/event/violence-and-mental-illness-myths-facts-and-how-mental-health-first-aid-can-help)
Centers for Disease Control: The Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/overview/publichealthapproach.html)
Social Work Today: Understanding Traumatic Grief — Mass Violence, Shattered. http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051313p12.shtml)
Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA, Manager of NASW’s Department of Social Justice and Human Rights