by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The issue of gun deaths has stayed near the center of the arena of public discourse since last week’s post, “Guns, Deaths, and Myths, Part 1.” The main reason is probably that three more multiple shootings occurred on or near college campuses. In that previous post, we explored the issues of gun ownership and use from the point of view of rights and the laws that affect rights.

This week, let’s knock down a few more myths, this time about what – if anything – can be done to reduce deaths from firearms use. For starters, we should decide what sort of gun deaths we’re discussing:

Violent crime, especially murder, is decreasing, not increasing.
A dispute we often hear is the one about whether the dramatic increase in violent crime would be better addressed by (A) more guns in the hands of more people in more places; or (B) fewer guns in the hands of fewer people in fewer places. Both of these positions are usually associated with a default assumption, namely, that violent crimes – especially gun murders – are becoming more and more common.

In fact, violent crime has seen a trend toward decrease for as long as records have been available. In the United States, murder rates have been steadily declining for almost a quarter of a century. In 2014 the murder rate (4.5 per 100,000) was less than half what it was in 1993 (9.3 per 100,000), and indeed lower than the 5.1 per 100,000 in 1960, the first year of FBI recordkeeping.  Going back even further, the estimated homicide rate (per 100,000) in America in 1700 was over 30 and did not dip below 20 until around 1800, then below 10 around 1900.

What has increased is the number of multiple murder shooting incidents, defined as a lone gunman killing four or more people in a single incident in a public place.  While it a common response of both sides to redirect the discussion away from mass shootings to the everyday tragedies of gun murders, the above statistics point out that those kinds of crimes are decreasing in number, while mass shootings are increasing in number.

Children are safer from gun violence in school than they are just about anywhere else.
Although the most recent mass shootings occurred on college campuses, the mass shootings that provoke the biggest response occur in K-12 schools. Columbine and Sandy Hook are known to everyone, even years after they happened. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that shooting deaths of schoolchildren are very rare. In 2014, there were only two fatal shootings in which pre-college students were killed in school. One resulted in one student shot to death by another, the other four student deaths at the hands of another. In both cases, the shooters were also students and both killed themselves. There are over 55 million students K-12 in the USA, so the shooting murder death rate in school last year was five per 55 million, or .00000009 – nine millionths of a percent. The year before, 2014, six kids were shot to death in school. Five of those were suicides, so the total number for the year of students who were shot to death in school by someone else was one.

A student is far more likely to die from participating in high school football. In 2013, the death toll nationwide for that activity was seventeen, including both direct (trauma) and indirect (such as heat stroke). In just the last six weeks, five high school athletes have died in football-related fatalities. Brain trauma is also much more likely from school football than from school shootings.  A bit over a million high school students participate in football, yielding a death rate of .0003 per participant, so a student who plays football is about 36 times more likely to die from that than from being shot in school.

As to gun deaths, a student is much more likely to die from a gunshot in his own home or a friend’s home – mainly by suicide or accident, but also from homicide. There are few places in which they are more insulated from gun violence than in school.

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Improved response to mental health issues will do little to reduce mass shootings.
As noted above, while the individual homicide rate is decreasing, the number of mass shootings is increasing. As the Washington Post points out , these are a special kind of crime, usually perpetrated by a particular kind of criminal. “[Mass killings] almost always stem from one man’s pre-suicidal outburst…. The perpetrators are overwhelmingly white middle-class males, who otherwise have a fairly low rate of homicide.”

This has caused a shift in the direction of dealing with mass shootings away from the gun and toward the gunner. Every politician seeking the presidency has brought up the need for better mental health diagnosis and care being vital to the prevention of further such multiple murders. The repetition of this general prescription is now proverbial, but no one has produced any specific way of making it happen.

How do you keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them? First, you have to identify who those people are. How can that be accomplished? Psychiatrists and psychologists will tell you that they cannot predict with any certainty who is likely to commit a mass murder. And, even if they could, how would we find those people? Must we administer profiling tests to everyone and then identify the individuals most at risk to become mass killers? Then what?

Should we, as Democratic presidential candidate Jim Webb suggested in the October 13, 2015, debate, rely on mental health treatment records? Webb pointed out that the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre that killed 32 in 2007 had been treated by three different doctors for mental health issues, but they were not allowed to share that information. Does that mean the solution is to gather the records of everyone who has ever sought mental health treatment and evaluate them? Then what?

Who would decide who is too insane to be allowed to have a gun? And even if we could determine such a nebulous status with some degree of certainty, what would we do with the people so identified? Must they be incarcerated to eliminate the remote possibility that they might become mass killers, even though they have committed no crime, but somebody thinks they might?

People with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators, but popular culture has spread a message that the mentally ill are violent, dangerous, “homicidal maniacs” when in fact they are almost invariably not. The shaming of mental illness has done enough damage already. If seeking help for a mental health issue might result in one’s being tagged as a potential mass murderer, who would seek treatment? The problem would get worse, not better.

Is more research needed that might improve the likelihood of identifying, finding, and treating (or otherwise dealing with) potential mass killers? Most would agree that it is. What kind of research is being done on this matter? The answer is, precious little. As this article from Associated Press medical writer Mike Stobbe points out, efforts to fund such research find no grant providers. As a result, nobody wants to enter the field.

If we want to keep the dangerously insane away from firearms, the options are to incarcerate guns or incarcerate people. Last week this blog observed that it is a futile effort to try to incarcerate guns. This week’s post shows that we cannot identify, let alone incarcerate, the people most likely to become mass shooters. Is the “mental health solution” a dead end? Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. But right now it is just a distraction, because even though everybody talks about the connection between mental health and mass gun violence, nobody knows how to do anything about it. And, apparently, nobody wants to find out if we even can do anything about it.

[Note: “Guns, Deaths, and Myths, Part 3” is now available.  Find it here.]