Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Prohibiting Psychiatric Patients From Owning Guns Misses Mark, Study Suggests

Prohibiting individuals with a history of psychiatric hospitalization from purchasing firearms alone appears unlikely to significantly reduce the number of victims of gun violence, according to a study in Psychiatric Services in Advance.

The multistate study of state prison inmates found that those with a history of psychiatric hospitalization represented a small proportion of violent gun offenders. “Contrary to media portrayals, persons with a history of hospitalization were less likely than those without such a history to target strangers and were no more likely to engage in public shootings or to have multiple victims,” wrote Aaron Kivisto, Ph.D., of the University of Indianapolis.

Kivisto analyzed data from the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities, a survey of a nationally representative sample of state prison inmates. Of the 14,499 inmates interviewed at 287 state prisons between October 2003 and May 2004, 6,535 (45%) were incarcerated for violent offenses, and 1,589 (24%) used a firearm in the commission of a crime. A total of 838 gun-violence perpetrators, defined as those incarcerated for a violent offense during which they fired a gun, had data available regarding psychiatric hospitalization prior to incarceration.

Kivisto found that those with a history of psychiatric hospitalization represented just 1 in 8 violent gun offenders and accounted for only 13% of overall gun violence victims. Moreover, 75% of violent gun offenders who did have a history of psychiatric hospitalization obtained firearms from sources not required by federal law to conduct background checks. 

“Central to understanding the potential public health impact of current [gun] policy efforts, such as the NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] Improvement Act aimed at increasing states’ reporting of individuals prohibited from purchasing firearms for mental health reasons, is the recognition that such policies hinge both on the relative contribution of persons with mental illness to the problem of gun violence and on the potential reach of federal regulations to deter at-risk individuals from obtaining firearms,” Kivisto wrote. “The study’s findings suggest that such efforts face challenges on both fronts.” 

Prior hospitalization alone as a variable for predicting violence is far too non-specific, said Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and expert on gun violence and mental illness, who was not involved with this study. However, he noted that previous studies have shown that there are subgroups within the population of individuals with prior psychiatric hospitalization—especially those who were involuntarily hospitalized and those with a prior history of violence—who may be at higher risk for dangerousness. Swanson emphasized that mental illness is correlated far more highly with suicide by firearms than with violence against others. 

“The real challenge when balancing risks and rights [to gun ownership] is to focus not on mental illness, per se, but on risk factors related to dangerousness to self or others,” Swanson told Psychiatric News

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Gun Violence Reduction Possible With Combined, Varied Actions.”

(Image: iStock/Allkindza)


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