But to the extent local news outlets cover the grinding violence of armed American life, it almost never makes national news. When individual cases of this peculiarly American tragedy do hit the front page of The New York Times or cut into airtime on CNN, it’s usually because something spectacularly horrific has happened.
Unfortunately, this weekend offered up yet another example.
An attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in the early hours of Sunday morning left 49 people dead and 53 more injured. That makes it the worst mass shooting in US history, as well as a devastating assault on the lives and spaces of the American LGBTQ community. It’s the kind of event that stops you in your tracks. It’s impossible to wrap your mind around what 49 individual deaths, or even 53 gun injuries really means.
But one of the many secondary tragedies of these especially horrific and high-profile shootings, which are themselves shockingly common in the US, is they skew our perception of what gun violence looks like in this country. And they leave us with a misleading sense of who’s to blame.
Across the political spectrum, the American response to a mass shooting is often to assume that mental illness is involved. And on a certain level that makes sense. Most of the notorious mass shooters in recent American memory have exhibited one form or another of mental illness.
As we have already discussed, subsequent large epidemiologic studies of community-representative samples reported that mental illnesses only moderately increased the relative risk of any violence, that is, assaultive behaviors ranging from slapping or shoving someone to using a weapon in a fight. Moreover, the absolute risk was very low; the vast majority of people with diagnosable serious psychiatric disorders, unless they also had a substance use disorder, did not engage in violent behavior.
In other words, mentally ill people do not pose an unusual risk of criminal violence. When a mentally ill person does commit violence, that makes them a rare and surprising exception.
A more reasonable culprit for bloodshed in the United States might be the single factor that most overwhelmingly correlates with murder in this country by every objective measure: the presence of a gun.