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Mentally ill people far more likely to be the victims of mass shootings, than the perpetrators of them

How do we even define mental illness?

The guns used in the Columbine shooting on display. Credit: Getty Images

After every mass shooting, a number of politicians and pundits highlight the need for better mental healthcare in American society as a way to hedge against future incidents. But according to Liza H. Gold and Robert I. Simon, the authors of the book Gun Violence and Mental Illness, less than 5% of such shootings are actually perpetrated by someone with a psychiatric disorder—or at least one that can be diagnosed.

The psychological profile for a mass shooter is usually an angry young man who’s socially isolated. The Parkland, Florida shooter fits the profile. Not only was Nikolas Cruz 19 and marginalized, he’d been referred to authorities for violent threats several times and had amassed a cache of weapons. Yet, he had never been diagnosed with any sort of mental illness.

The Las Vegas shooting that occurred last October — the largest in American history — saw 58 dead and over 500 injured. It was perpetrated by a 64-year-old with no criminal background or history of mental illness. Stephen Paddock was well off, had a relatively normal social life, and wasn’t considered angry or disturbed by anyone who knew him.

Professor Matthew Miller at Northeastern University has written several papers on gun violence. He said that if a psychiatric disorder was the main driver, the high number of mass shootings in the U.S. would mean an exceptionally large mentally ill population. Rather, it has about the same rate of mental illness as other developed countries, like those of Western Europe for example.

Someone with mental illness is far more likely to be the victim of a shooting than the perpetrator. Credit: Getty Images.

Thirty years of solid research points to no link between mental illness and gun violence. In 2015, ProPublica interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a psychology and behavioral sciences professor at Duke University School of Medicine and one of the leading experts on mental illness and violence. According to Dr. Swanson, schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression combined only account for about 4% of all cases of violence in the US annually. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and never will be,” he said.

A report written by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox found that between 1966 and 2015, only 14.8% of mass shootings were carried out by a known psychotic. Another study found that just 23% of all mass killers were mentally ill. Improving mental health care could help loads of people in the U.S., and should be a national priority. But it’s not going to stop all mass shootings.

Only 4% of all interpersonal violence committed annually in America can be attributed to a psychiatric disorder. And in fact, the mentally ill commit less than 1% of all gun violence each year. Columbia University forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone keeps a database on mass shootings. As of 2015, out of 235 incidents, only 52 were perpetrated by someone diagnosed with a mental illness, just 22% of the total.

The data is clear. Those with a psychiatric condition are more likely to be the victim of gun violence than the perpetrator. As such, expanded firearm restrictions or background checks for the mentally ill will be ineffective in stopping gun rampages. Risk factors for the kind of violence that happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High include a history of child abuse, substance abuse, and living or growing up in a violent environment. One doesn’t have to be schizophrenic or bipolar to experience such things.

Broadly limiting access to guns in the US would be effective but remains highly controversial. Credit: Getty Images.

President Trump has raised the idea of resurrecting mental health hospitals, but advocates and patients say such an act would more likely infringe on the rights of our most vulnerable, and make them susceptible to inhumane conditions and abuse. Following mental health records won’t do the trick, either. Not only is it unfair and irrelevant, there’s a problem with noteworthy mental health issues being recorded or even reported.

What complicates things further is the understanding that in psychology there isn’t even a standard use of the phrase “mentally ill.” Professor Stone writes in his 2015 report, “Not all who use the term use it in the same way, not even within the field of psychiatry, let alone within the much wider public sphere.” It’s also difficult to diagnose psychopathy. Note that psychopaths only make up about 1% of the population. The same with schizophrenics, just 1%. And sadism even among these conditions is rare.

The profile of a mass shooter is a male prone to grudges. Besides being an outcast and a likely victim of child abuse, he’s a substance abuser and lives in a violent place or has in the past. Usually paranoid and disgruntled, he takes time to plan and carries out his killing spree as an act of revenge against those he feels slighted him. The shooter never reflects on what he’s done wrong in his life, but instead harbors feelings of superiority over his victims and blames them for his woes. Still, there’s an overwhelming hopelessness in such an act, and most mass shooters commit suicide or are killed by police in the aftermath.

Without broadly limiting access to guns in the U.S., which is highly controversial, Dr. Swanson suggests that perhaps a better way would be to scan for those who have a history of violence. A restraining order, a DUI or DWI, or a conviction for a violent act would set off a red flag. Enough of these would trigger a firearm restraining order, which is when one's guns are taken away by the authorities. But such a system could only be effective if a constellation of community workers, such as police, teachers, social workers, and mental health professionals, and even federal authorities like the FBI, cooperate closely to notice someone with a series of red flags and take the appropriate measures.

To learn more about mass shootings and mental illness, click here.

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  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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