By Nalini Ramachandran, National Engagement Manager
Gun violence legislation should focus on prevention and knowing the signs and signals, not on a mental health diagnosis.
Nalini Ramachandran (third from the right) joins a group of Sandy Hook Promise activists to advocate for common sense reforms.
Every year, we recognize the first week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week. It's an opportunity to better understand mental health and those living with mental illness. That includes debunking the myth about the relationship between gun violence and mental health. We often hear that gun violence, including mass shootings, is carried out by people who have a mental illness. But in fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators.
Here’s what we know: mental illness does not cause violence, including gun violence.1
But what does that mean when it comes to laws around firearm ownership? How can we be sure that gun violence prevention legislation doesn’t further blame mental illness?
For example, let’s consider extreme risk protection orders, also known as ERPOs and sometimes referred to as red flag laws.
ERPOs empower families and law enforcement to prevent violence by petitioning a court to temporarily remove a firearm from someone who is showing signs that they may hurt themselves or others. It lines up with Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs programs because it encourages people to recognize warning signs and gives them tools to take action.
ERPOs are meant to help people in crisis who have access to a gun and have been very helpful in preventing suicides.2 But to be clear, that does not mean they only help individuals with a mental health diagnosis. In fact, only 4% of interpersonal violence can be attributed to mental illness alone.3 That means we can’t afford to limit the use of an ERPO to someone who has a mental health diagnosis. Otherwise, we risk leaving out the majority of people who may still need this help.
Instead of focusing on mental health, ERPOs should include language about patterns of behavior that could lead to violence.
Extreme risk protection orders are a valuable way to reduce gun violence. We should be careful of ERPO laws that could unfairly blame those living with mental illness. Instead, we must encourage ERPOs that provide resources for all people who need help in a crisis and who have access to a firearm.
As more state legislatures and the federal government consider ERPO policies, this should be at the front of our minds. ERPO legislation that links acts of violence with mental illness will not help us become safer and stands to further stigmatize mental health.
Advances in gun violence prevention cannot come at the expense of mental health. Rather than focusing on a mental health diagnosis, ERPOs should continue to focus on behavioral indicators of violence, like threats, past violence, and reckless firearm use.4 We’re best equipped to prevent violence when we know the signs and take action.