Guns and mental health (and data!)

A very, very smart friend of mine (and accomplished social scientist) wrote on FB this evening:

Today’s testable hypotheses

1. The pro-gun lobby tells the causal story of “mental illness” as a way to explain the Newtown shooting. It’s not an unsound argument, and it’s clearly a form of “sense making,” but it does tend to shift the debate away from guns–which are more efficient at killing than knives–to a debate about mental health.

2. If we accept that (a) most gun proponents are political conservatives, (b) most political conservatives do not trust science, particularly social and behavioral science, and (c) most political conservatives oppose public financing or new regulatory regimes that would provide more mental health services, then we can assume that, while gun advocates believe the cause of mass violence is unchecked mental illness, most of these advocates oppose the provision of public health services outside the inadequate system of private insurance (which, even then, is notoriously poor at providing services and access to services).

Bottom line: the mental health theme may be simply a rhetorical tactic to change the terms of the debate. How to test thes hypotheses? Survey data on gun attitudes and attitudes toward public mental health services. Next step: see if such data exist. (General Social Survey, maybe?)

Well, that’s just baiting me to put off doing the dishes and settling down with whatever is on HBO.  I’ve got all the GSS datasets on my school computer, but you can run handy crosstabs with a great website.  So, here’s some handy crosstabs that show– not at all surprisingly– those opposed to gun permits 1) are more opposed to government spending on mental health; and 2) also more opposed to the government being responsible for caring for those with mental illness.

First, government responsibility:




And government spending:





Null hypothesis rejected.  Can say with considerable confidence that even though the gun rights supporters would like to blame our mental health system– not our gun laws and gun culture– they are decidedly less interested in funding that mental health system.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Guns and mental health (and data!)

  1. itchy says:

    I don’t think gun nuts want to help people with mental illness; I think they want to lock them up.

  2. Mike says:

    In Florida they passed a law that prevents a doctor from inquiring about gun ownership, under any circumstances under penalty of law and possible incarceration. Effectively cutting off their ability to do anything should there be mental health issues. This law was backed by the NRA.

    This law and it’s passage shows the NRA isn’t interested in ANY issue, except ensuring the gun manufacturers continue to be able to sell as many guns as possible without any restriction, and the public be able to purchase and keep guns without any restriction.

    Luckily a judge overturned the law.

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