The Comforting Tale of the Crazed Gunman

A rifle barrel. Remixed from " Shoot for Hope 2 " by  Renee Viehmann ,  CC-BY .A rifle barrel. Remixed from " Shoot for Hope 2 " by  Renee Viehmann ,  CC-BY .

A rifle barrel. Remixed from “Shoot for Hope 2” by Renee Viehmann, CC-BY.

In the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut, the narrative of the mentally ill gunman has reared its ugly head again. It’s a comforting story–one that says that people capable of mass killings are rare, and so far outside of society that they’re not really even human. It provides a neat, easy explanation of how someone could do something so terrible.

The truth is a lot more complicated than that. One out of every four Americans has some form of mental illness. The overwhelming majority of them never kill anyone, and many mass shooters have no medical history of mental health problems.

The kind of homicidal (and suicidal) impulses on display in mass shootings are a pretty obvious sign of some form of mental illness. But if someone shows no sign of having these impulses until the day they commit a mass murder, then it’s very unlikely that improving access to mental health care would do them much good.

When a mass shooting happens, derailing the conversation to talk about mental health actually just re-enforces misconceptions about mental illness, increasing the very stigma that makes it difficult for people who need mental health services to get care in the first place.

Mass shootings are irrational, so it’s easy to blame them on insanity. But we’re not going to protect ourselves or our children  by stigmatizing mental illness. We need to find the stomach for some hard conversations–not just about guns, but about how we construct masculinity, how we connect power and aggression, and the pressures we place one people who are already hurting. It’s easy to point at a mass shooter and say “they did that because they were broken.” If we’re serious about preventing these tragedies, we need to start asking ourselves what broke them.