illustration of face in silhouette; the field of vision is portrayed as a beam, which is filled with guns, syringes, and bottles

Gauging Gun Risks

By Joe Sugarman

After the rash of mass shootings in recent years, some politicians and pundits have lobbied for sweeping policies barring people with mental illness from owning guns. But that may not be the most effective strategy. A history of violent acts or serious substance abuse, not mental illness alone, should determine who is allowed to own a gun and who isn’t, according to new recommendations by the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy. The report recognizes that the vast majority of people with mental health conditions are not violent and calls for developing evidence-based criteria for determining who is more likely to commit acts of violence and prohibiting them from owning guns.

“Past behavior is the best indication of future behavior, and that’s where we’re going to be effective in concentrating our efforts on gun violence prevention policy,” says Shannon Frattaroli, PhD ’99, MPH ’94, an associate professor in the Center for Gun Policy and Research, who served on the consortium.

The consortium—composed of approximately 30 of the country’s leading researchers, practitioners and advocates in gun violence prevention and mental health—convened last spring at the Bloomberg School and in December 2013 issued two reports with recommendations for both state and federal policymakers.

Looking at current epidemiology, the group concluded that strategies focused solely on restricting access to guns by those diagnosed with a mental illness are too broad and therefore unlikely to significantly reduce overall rates of gun violence.

“When we think about the risk factors for gun violence, and where we can intervene, what we really need to be doing is focusing on behaviors and not diagnoses,” says Frattaroli. Center for Gun Policy and Research colleagues—Daniel Webster, ScD ’91, MPH; Jon Vernick, JD, MPH ’94; Beth McGinty, PhD ’13; Stephen Teret, JD, MPH; Sheldon Greenberg, PhD; and graduate assistant Anna Grilley who will earn her MSPH this May—also participated in the consortium.

The report calls for temporary restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms by people subject to temporary domestic violence restraining orders, and restrictions of up to five years by individuals convicted of violent misdemeanors, or more than one drug or DUI/DWI within a certain period. These behaviors are all associated with an elevated risk of violence, even when not accompanied by a record of mental illness. Researchers recommended maintaining current provisions that permanently disqualify individuals from possessing firearms following involuntary commitment to a mental health facility.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence and a visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School, says that in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the time was right.

“We were having these shootings by people who were clearly affected by mental illness, but at the same time, I was cognizant that most shootings aren’t committed by the mentally ill,” says Horwitz, who organized the consortium. “I thought it was really important to get everybody in the same room and ask, ‘What is the state of knowledge, and what can we confidently say about the intersection of guns and mental health that would potentially reduce gun violence?’”