By Ben Taylor
In the month since the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon — in which a 26-year-old man killed eight students and a professor — Congress has turned not to gun control, but mental health.
Six days after the shooting, Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, sponsored the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, a bill first introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Senate. Backed by the National Rifle Association, the law would “enhance the ability of local communities to identify and treat potentially dangerous, mentally-ill offenders,” as well as “help fix the existing background check system” according to Sen. Cornyn’s press release. The bill has gone on to receive bipartisan support, a rare feat in today’s polarized congressional climate.
While the bill certainly has its critics — some argue that the legislation would ultimately weaken the current system — the legislation’s broad support sends a clear signal: Congress believes addressing mental health concerns, not enacting stricter gun control, will serve as the best response to the latest round of gun violence. But does the data support this decision?
Recently, we evaluated President Obama’s claim that “states with the most gun laws have the fewest gun deaths.” With all types of gun deaths included, including suicide, he’s right. But several other factors complicate the president’s statement. When you remove suicides, the correlation still holds, but becomes much weaker. If you count only by mass shootings, the correlation disappears — for example, California has more than its fair share of mass shootings (nine since 1984) despite having the strictest gun laws in the nation. Still, there’s enough data to suggest that gun violence does indeed tend to drop alongside stricter gun laws.
Does the same trend hold for mental health? At HealthGrove, we wanted to perform a similar study, this time looking at the correlation between rates of serious mental ilness and gun deaths on a state-by-state basis. The data comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.