“Do something!” shouted a lone voice at Ohio’s governor during a post-massacre candlelight vigil in downtown Dayton. Others soon chimed into what became a crowd chant, which has now challenged Congress to, indeed, do something in response to the repeated mass shootings.
In response, politicians and pundits offered varied diagnoses and remedies. Some blamed mental illness or violent video gaming or White nationalist hate speech. Others noted that such do not set the United States apart from countries that also have mental illness, video game enthusiasts, and hate speech—yet have vastly fewer homicides and virtually no mass shootings. What distinguishes the United States is, simply, guns.
Despite broad and growing public support for strengthened background checks and assault weapon bans, America’s nearly 400 million guns are not disappearing soon. So what, realistically, is something effective we can do?
Might “red flag” gun laws, which aim to take guns away from dangerous people, be a remedy? If someone expresses suicidal or destructive fantasies, or is mentally ill, could we save lives by confiscating their weapons?
The idea of identifying at-risk individuals is not new. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Paul Ryan had the idea in 2015: “People with mental illness are getting guns and committing these mass shootings.” In the wake of the 2018 slaughter of 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school, Florida’s Governor (now-Senator) Rick Scott went a step further, urging stronger rules to red-flag 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.” President Donald Trump suggested 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.” After the El Paso and Dayton massacres, he declared that mass killers are “mentally ill monsters.” At an August 15th New Hampshire rally he added that "These people are mentally ill. I think we have to start building institutions again."
The general public has supported red-flagging. In a 2012 Gallup survey, 84 percent of Americans agreed that “increased government spending on mental health screening and treatment” would be a “somewhat” or “very” effective “approach to preventing mass shootings at schools.”
While we psychologists welcome the expressed high regard for our supposed powers of discernment, the hard reality is otherwise. Extremely rare events such as mass shootings are inherently difficult to predict, even by the best psychological science. One analysis reviewed 73 studies that attempted to predict violent or antisocial behavior. Its conclusion: Using psychology’s risk assessment tools “as sole determinants of detention, sentencing, and release is not supported by the current evidence.”
Moreover, among the millions of troubled people who could potentially murder or commit suicide, it is impossible to identify in advance the infinitesimal fraction who will do so. And it would surely be unfair to stigmatize all “mentally ill” people. Most mentally ill people do not commit violent acts, and most violent criminals are not mentally ill. Violent acts are better predicted by anger, alcohol use, previous violence, gun availability, and young-male demography. (The El Paso and Dayton shooters were 21 and 24-year-old males.) As the late psychologist David Lykken once observed, “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.”
Suicide is likewise hard to predict. One research team summarized 50 years of research on suicide’s unpredictability: “The vast majority of people who possess a specific risk factor [for suicide] will never engage in suicidal behavior.” Moreover, our ability to predict suicide “has not improved across 50 years.”
Even given our inability to offer accurate predictions of who will commit murder or suicide, we do know some risk factors. As every psychology student knows, one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior: Prior violent acts increase the risk of future violent acts--and prior suicide attempts raise the risk of a future suicide. This was seemingly illustrated by the death of convicted pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein, after he was removed from suicide watch, which the New York Times reports would normally be decided by the chief psychologist at a federal prison facility after “a face-to-face psychological evaluation.” Shortly after apparently being deemed not at risk, despite his prior attempt, Epstein reportedly died by hanging in his prison cell.
But even without knowing who will commit suicide, we can modify the environment to reduce its probability. For example, fences that negate jumping from bridges and buildings have reduced the likelihood of impulsive suicides. Reducing the number of in-home guns has also been effective. States with high gun ownership rates are states with high suicide rates, even after controlling for other factors such as poverty. After Missouri repealed its tough handgun law, its suicide rate went up 15 percent; when Connecticut enacted such a law, its suicide rate dropped 16 percent.
And we can reduce, even if we cannot predict, mass shootings. As my psychologist colleague Linda Woolf wrote after a 2018 massacre, and again after El Paso and Dayton, it is time “to focus on the evidence—mass shootings occur, and guns make these atrocities all too easy and frequent.” Our politicians, she adds, should initiate gun safety reforms including “a ban on assault weapons, ban on large-capacity magazines, universal background checks, stiffer licensing laws, red flag laws, and lifting of all Federal restrictions on gun violence research.” Although we cannot predict the next tragedy, we can act to reduce its likelihood.