Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 85:3 (2015), pp 211–216.

doi 10.1037/ort0000069


Copyright © 2015 American Orthopsychiatric Association; published by American Psychological Association. Used by permission.


Every time an infamous mass shooting takes place, a storm of rhetoric sweeps across this country with the fury of a wild fire. “Why are we letting these people carry guns?” “Why were they not hospitalized?” “The government needs to crack down on this issue!” What is the government’s response to these cries of concern? Politicians and the media attempt to ease public fears by drawing tenuous connections among a handful of poorly understood tragedies. The salient commonality is that these high-profile shooters had some history of mental illness. A cursory review of the Internet will paint a troubling picture of publicly unverifiable diagnoses: James Holmes, of the Aurora theater shootings, may have had schizophrenia. The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, supposedly had a past diagnosis of major depressive disorder. Adam Lanza, who was responsible for the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, possibly presented with a history of autism spectrum disorder and obsessive–compulsive disorder.

A fallacy has ensued whereby the actions of a few troubled individuals have effectively molded national policy. Presumptions that mental illness is causally tied to firearm violence and that guns are too easily acquired by such persons have given rise to laws that categorically restrict people with mental health concerns from exercising a Constitutional right. Underlying these reforms appears to be a revised idiom, “Guns don’t kill people— crazy people kill people.” The purpose of this commentary is to address these assumptions and provide suggestions for managing this critical threat.