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Weapon-Involved Violence and Mental Illness: An Empirical Examination of the Policy Assumptions for Firearm and Other Dangerous Weapon Prohibitions

Heath J Hodges, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


High-profile incidents of weapon-involved violence have galvanized public outrage, legislative proposals, and executive orders concerning individuals with mental illness and weapon access, particularly firearms. A review of public surveys and policy polls reveals multiple assumptions about the relationship between mental illness and violence, which have informed firearm prohibitions aimed at the mentally ill. However, few of these assumptions have been empirically investigated. With community (n = 154) and forensic psychiatric samples (n = 80), this study utilized a series of questionnaires to assess policy opinions, psychopathic traits, experiences with firearms, and perpetration rates for weapon-involved violence. Mental health files were also reviewed for psychiatric patients. Results indicated the prevalence of firearm violence was low among both samples but relatively higher among psychiatric patients. When looking at experiences with firearms more generally between the samples, psychiatric patients reported significantly more exposure to firearms in youth, were more likely to have acquired firearms from illegal means in the past, and were disproportionately more often victims of violence and violence with a weapon. By contrast, community participants endorsed greater knowledge of firearm safety practices, ammunition, and federal firearm regulations. Weapon-involved violence that did not entail a firearm was also examined. All firearm perpetrators also identified as “other weapon perpetrators.” Similar to firearm violence, psychiatric patients were significantly more likely than community participants to report using other types of weapons to threaten or harm another person. Approximately half of the psychiatric sample endorsed weapon violence with some other type of weapon. Correlates of other weapon violence included features of childhood disruption, criminal history, and substance abuse. Among the psychiatric sample, a classification model using these covariates successfully distinguished between other weapon perpetrators and non-perpetrators. Notably, severe mental illness did not differentiate between groups. Overall, the majority of psychiatric patients did not report engaging in weapon-involved violence, either with a firearm or another weapon. Features of weapon-involved violence were comparable to those of violence generally. Findings did not support the underlying assumptions about weapon-involved violence and mental illness. Results of this study have implications for policy, clinical practice, and research in this area.

Subject Area

Psychology|Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

Hodges, Heath J, "Weapon-Involved Violence and Mental Illness: An Empirical Examination of the Policy Assumptions for Firearm and Other Dangerous Weapon Prohibitions" (2017). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10616632.