Home Study: Violence in U.S. linked to easy access to firearms, not necessarily mental health

Study: Violence in U.S. linked to easy access to firearms, not necessarily mental health

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New research shows that the United States has dramatically higher homicides relative to all other developed nations – with most attributed to firearms – and the data shows the problem is growing. The research shows that rates of firearm homicides are as much as 97 times higher than the UK, for instance.

However, data from Sapien Labs shows, that on mental health, the U.S. fares somewhat better.

Tara Thiagarajan, chief scientist at Sapien Labs, said the data exploring links between mental heath and gun crime shows that access to firearms is the main difference between the U.S. and the other countries in the study.

“The data suggests that the U.S. has more firearm deaths mainly because it has more firearms,” said Thiagarajan. “There are four to seven times as many civilian firearms per 100 people in the U.S. compared to all other developed countries. This likely lowers the barriers to use of firearms in violent ways.”

In other words, less availability to firearms in other countries means less gun deaths. The study also found that mental distress did not necessarily play a factor in firearm homicides.

“What it tells us is that simply having severe mental distress or even strong feelings of aggression does not simply translate to firearm homicides or deaths due to physical violence,” said Thiagarajan. “The main difference between the U.S. and other countries is not the level of mental distress or aggression but rather the ease of availability and permissiveness around firearms.”

Oftentimes, after a mass shooting or public shooting, experts immediately place the blame on mental-health issues. Thiagarajan said that isn’t necessarily the case based on their data.

“One hypothesis has been that mental health issues are the primary cause of shootings in the U.S.,” she said. “This data shows a lack of evidence in this regard and suggests that improvement of mental health, while very important in its own right, is not likely to have much impact on the rates of firearm deaths due to physical violence within the current context of firearm availability.”

The findings were a surprise initially to researchers.

“The issue is that the gun environment in the U.S. is so outsized compared to all other developed countries,” she said.

She gives this analogy for understanding the findings: “If you looked at the relationship between overall physical prowess of a population and the number of Olympic medalists of countries, you would expect to see a correlation where the greater the physical prowess of a population, the more Olympians it will produce. However, this would only be true if countries have comparable environments for sports. If one country has seven times the sports equipment, facilities and coaches compared to all the other countries, of course it will produce more Olympic athletes, even if its population on average is a little less physically strong. This is because people who may have had a slight inclination to sports would be far more likely to take it on in an environment with a lot of opportunities around.”

It seems to be a similar thing with gun violence in the U.S.

“Those with a slight inclination towards gun use and violence find an environment with far more opportunity to act,” she said.

The research revealed:

  • Out of 32 countries presently tracked by the Mental Health Million project, the United States ranks #8 in firearm deaths due to physical violence after Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Iraq and South Africa.
  • In terms of mental wellbeing, the U.S. ranks #7 in terms of the percentage distressed or struggling with their mental health. However all but one of the countries with poorer mental wellbeing had substantially lower rates of firearm deaths due to physical violence.
  • Among 18-24 year old males, who are the highest risk group of committing firearm violence, the U.S. ranks 17 out of 32 in terms of the ratings of aggression and violence towards others in the MHQ. Of the 16 countries with higher ratings of aggression and violence than the United States, only four had higher firearm deaths due to physical violence than the U.S.
  • In the Core Anglosphere (Anglo-Saxon English speaking countries), the United States had the ranks highest in mental wellbeing and comparably in terms of the percentage of the population with high aggression, but 8 to 10 times higher firearm deaths due to physical violence.
  • Altogether at a country level, there was no significant relationship between the rates of firearm-related deaths due to physical violence and (i) poor mental wellbeing, (ii) the rates of clinical mental distress, and (iii) levels of self-reported problems with aggression and violence.
  • On the other hand, we point out that suicide rates, sexual assault, and physical assault are all significantly correlated with poor mental wellbeing.

Sapien Labs is a nonprofit organization founded in 2016 based in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2020, they launched an initiative called the Mental Health Million Project to map the evolving wellbeing of the global population.

Read the full report online.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.