In the aftermath of the mass murder at a Florida high school, gun safety advocates reminded us that countries and states with the most guns (which are also the places with the most “good guys with guns”) have the most homicidal and suicidal gun deaths. The United States, for example, has more than 300 million guns and a firearm death rate that is, per person, 46 times that of the largely gun-free UK. Unless we’re to assume that Americans are simply more malevolent, surely this has something to do with gun availability. If so, perhaps, to put this as gently as possible, some new gun safety legislation might be appropriate?
President Trump offered an alternative idea—opening more mental hospitals that could house would-be mass murders: “When you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott concurred about the implied feasibility of identifying high-risk people: “I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun. I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun.”
Although we psychologists might appreciate these extremely high estimations of our discipline’s powers of discernment, the reality is that these aggressors, though harboring anger, have mostly not had distinct psychiatric disorders and their acts are extremely difficult to predict. As one review of 73 studies of nearly 25,000 people concluded, psychology’s “risk assessment tools” have “low to moderate” predictive power. Thus, their “use as sole determinants of detention, sentencing, and release is not supported by the current evidence.”
The Florida mass murderer, Nikolas Cruz, is a case in point. Although, in hindsight, it seems obvious that Cruz was a ticking time bomb, a mental health center had deemed him not a threat. True, he was angry and seemingly isolated and depressed, but so are a million or more other teen males—for whom the late psychologist David Lykken in his The Antisocial Personalities offers a tongue-in-cheek solution: “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.”
The impossibility of identifying, in advance, high-risk people with mental illness is compounded by the unfairness of a gun ban targeted at “mentally ill” people but not others. Who is mentally ill? A person with a phobia for heights? Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder? An eating disorder? Obviously, society will need to look beyond psychology for gun violence remedies.