Keep Scrolling for continue reading for more stories

Mental Illness Doesn’t Explain Gun Violence—But Inequality and Democratic Erosion Do

The Prevailing Narrative

Gun violence in the United States is an urgent, multifaceted issue. With 393 million civilian-owned guns, the U.S. has more guns than people. This easy accessibility to firearms has resulted in alarming statistics: in 2019 alone, there were 39,707 gun-related deaths.

Moreover, the U.S. stands out globally, with firearm mortality rates that rank 20th worldwide, and along with five South American countries, it constitutes half of the world’s firearm deaths.

The Prevailing Narrative that Blames Mental Illness

A widespread but misleading narrative often pushed in political and media circles is that mental illness is the primary cause of gun violence in America.

This perspective has been used to explain everything from mass shootings to everyday incidents. However, the data contradicts this notion.

According to a fact sheet from Mental Health America, only 4% of gun violence in America can be attributed to mental illness. In fact, persons with mental illness are more often victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

The More Likely Explanation: Inequality and Democratic Erosion

While the issue of gun violence is frequently framed as a mental health problem, this oversimplification overlooks several more compelling and interconnected factors.

A more nuanced explanation for the epidemic of gun violence in America involves the easy accessibility of guns, the high levels of income inequality, and the ongoing erosion of democratic institutions and norms. These factors collectively create a socio-political environment where gun violence not only thrives but also resists easy solutions, despite public opinion largely favoring stricter gun control measures.

Accessibility of Guns and Public Opinion

Overview of Current Gun Laws and Ease of Obtaining a Gun

The United States has some of the most permissive gun laws in the world. Federal law sets the minimum standards, but states have the latitude to impose stricter regulations.

However, the lack of a unified federal policy makes it remarkably easy to obtain firearms, including high-powered guns. For instance, private sellers are not required to conduct background checks, creating a loophole that accounts for 22% of all gun sales.

This ease of accessibility is evident in the sheer number of guns in the U.S., which outnumbers the population, standing at 393 million civilian-owned firearms.

Data on What the Majority of Americans Want in Terms of Gun Control

Despite the prevalence of guns, public opinion strongly leans towards stricter gun control. According to a CNN poll conducted in May 2023, 64% of Americans favor stricter gun control laws, and this sentiment has been relatively consistent since 2016.

Support for specific measures is also high: 94% of the public supports preventing certain people, such as convicted felons or those with mental health issues, from owning guns. Additionally, 80% favor preventing people under 21 from buying any type of gun.

This data shows a public that is largely in favor of taking concrete steps to mitigate gun violence.

The Disconnect Between Public Opinion and Enacted Policies

Despite clear public support for stricter gun control, there is a significant gap between what Americans want and what policies are enacted.

This disconnect can be attributed to various factors, including gerrymandering and the influence of special interest groups like the NRA.

For example, despite 54% of the public believing that stricter gun control laws would reduce gun-related deaths, legislative efforts often stall or get diluted.

This democratic erosion is further illustrated by an undemocratic Senate and an unrepresentative Supreme Court—five of the current nine justices were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote during their first run for office. These institutional barriers perpetuate a system where the majority opinion is not adequately represented in policy-making, allowing the gun violence epidemic to persist.

Despite the majority of Americans supporting more stringent gun control measures, legislative efforts continue to be stymied by various institutional and political barriers. This dissonance is a key element in understanding the complexity of gun violence in America.

Income Inequality as a Catalyst

Data and Discussion on Income, Wealth, and Racial Inequality

The United States is grappling with significant income, wealth, and racial inequality. The top 1% of Americans hold about 31% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% hold just 2%.

In terms of income, the richest 5% of households had an average income that was 13 times as large as the poorest 20% of households. Racial disparities are also glaring; for example, the median wealth for white families is ten times higher than for Black families.

This inequality is not just economic but extends to opportunities, education, healthcare, and more, creating a fragmented society.

Research and Examples Showing How Inequality Contributes to Gun Violence

Inequality is not merely a social issue but has real consequences for public safety, including contributing to gun violence. Research indicates that income inequality is linked to higher rates of violent crime, including gun-related incidents.

One study found that for each percentage point increase in the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, firearm-related homicides increased by 3.7%. Another study showed that neighborhoods with high levels of income inequality experience more gun violence incidents than more economically homogeneous areas.

Inequality also feeds into social tensions, creating an environment ripe for conflict. For instance, Chicago’s South Side, a region with high levels of poverty and racial segregation, experiences gun violence rates that are significantly higher than other areas in the city.

Similarly, the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity in many inner-city communities perpetuates gun violence, as individuals resort to illicit activities as a means of economic survival, further increasing the risk of gun-related incidents.

The data and research highlight that income inequality acts as a catalyst for gun violence, adding another layer to this complex issue.

A society marked by stark economic disparities produces conditions conducive to higher levels of violence, including gun-related incidents. As such, any holistic approach to curbing gun violence in America must also address the root causes and consequences of income inequality.

Democratic Erosion and Its Impact on Policy

Definition and Explanation of Democratic Erosion

Democratic erosion refers to the gradual weakening of democratic institutions, norms, and principles that safeguard a representative and accountable system of governance. This erosion can manifest through the undermining of checks and balances, weakening of civil liberties, and suppression of voter rights.

In the U.S., democratic erosion has been observed through actions like voter ID laws that disproportionately affect minority populations, purging of voter rolls, and attempts to undermine the independence of judiciary and other institutions.

Effects on Anti-Gun Violence Policies

The phenomenon of democratic erosion has had a profound impact on the formulation and implementation of anti-gun violence policies in the United States.


Gerrymandering has led to a distortion of representation, where elected officials are not truly representative of the public opinion on gun control.

Despite 64% of Americans favoring stricter gun control laws, gerrymandered districts have resulted in disproportionate representation for gun rights advocates in both state legislatures and Congress.

An Undemocratic Senate

The Senate, where every state regardless of population gets two Senators, is another undemocratic institution affecting gun policy. For example, Senators representing less than half of the U.S. population can block legislation favored by the majority.

This imbalance in representation hampers the passage of policies like universal background checks for gun purchases, even though such measures are widely supported by the American public.

An Unrepresentative Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, where 5 of the current 9 justices were appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote during their first run for office, has also played a role. The Court has made significant decisions that have expanded gun rights, such as striking down gun control measures in Washington D.C. and Chicago. These decisions are not reflective of public sentiment, which largely favors more restrictions on gun ownership and usage.

Democratic erosion in the United States has created a systemic barrier to implementing policies that could mitigate gun violence.

Despite substantial public support for stricter gun control measures, the undemocratic nature of key institutions like the Senate and the Supreme Court, exacerbated by gerrymandering, has prevented the passage of significant legislation. Therefore, addressing democratic erosion is essential for a more comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence.

The Mental Illness Red Herring and Real Predictors

Discussion on Why Mental Illness is Not a Reliable Predictor for Gun Violence

Contrary to the popular narrative often presented by Republican lawmakers, mental illness is not a reliable predictor for gun violence.

While 60% of gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2017 were suicides, only 37% were murders. Data from the Mental Health America organization indicates that 95-97% of homicidal gun violence is not carried out by individuals with a mental illness.

This is a significant point that dismantles the often-cited justification for not implementing stricter gun control laws. The claim that mental illness is the root cause of gun violence is both misleading and discriminatory.

How the Mental Illness Narrative Distracts from Addressing Real Issues

The focus on mental illness serves as a red herring that distracts from the real issues contributing to gun violence. This narrative is convenient for those opposed to gun control, as it shifts the blame away from lax gun laws, high levels of income inequality, and democratic erosion.

Moreover, it also stigmatizes individuals who live with mental health conditions, making it more challenging to address mental health in a substantive and compassionate manner.

By focusing on mental illness as the purported cause of gun violence, policymakers are sidestepping more reliable predictors of violence, including previous incidents of violence, youth justice involvement, and substance abuse.

Even clinical factors like younger age and lower income are more reliable predictors of violence compared to mental illness. In fact, if mental illness were eliminated, gun violence in America would go down by just 4%.

Conclusion and Call to Action

The prevailing narrative that attributes gun violence in the U.S. to mental illness is not just overly simplistic; it’s dangerously misleading. By focusing on mental illness as the culprit, we as a society are diverting attention and resources away from the real issues that could be addressed through comprehensive policy-making.

The data clearly shows that the American public is largely in favor of more stringent gun control measures.

Similarly, there’s a growing recognition of the dangerous levels of income inequality in the country, and an increasing awareness of how our democratic institutions are being eroded. It’s time for a call to action.

Policymakers and the public alike need to push for comprehensive legislation that addresses the real causes of gun violence.

This includes not only stricter gun laws but also policies aimed at reducing income inequality and restoring democratic integrity. We need to move beyond convenient but misleading explanations and work together to tackle the root causes of gun violence in America.