Since the recent Oregon mass shooting, one of the regular arguments against gun control has been brought out again–that even if we adopted stricter gun laws they would not stop a determined criminal. The theory is that if a person really wants a gun they will find a way to get one. I’m going to restrict my analysis of this argument to the phenomenon of the “mentally ill mass shooter” and not the hardened criminal or terrorist.
Of course, without testing the effectiveness of gun controls there is no way to know for sure what the outcome would be. However, there are at least two reasons to suspect this logic. First is that if this logic is extended, then it would suppose that in countries where gun laws are stricter, the rate of mass shootings by mental ill people would still be at least as high as in the US, if not higher (because there would be fewer armed civilians around to deter the shooters–another pro-gun argument). And yet, this is not the case. The Wall Street Journal wrote recently that the US ranks #1 in mass shootings in the world, and that countries with the largest numbers of gun ownership tended to have the most mass shootings. Yes, some nordic countries have higher per capital rates of deaths from mass shootings, but this is largely due to skewed statistics–these countries had only a few mass shootings, but they happened to have higher death counts than those typical of the US.
The other reason has to do with an analogy to suicide. Many mentally ill mass shooters are suicidal–many of the mass shootings in the US end in the shooter committing suicide. However, the analogy may still hold true even for those cases where the shooter is not suicidal. One of the myths of suicide is that “a suicidal person determined to kill himself/herself will always find a way.” Yet we know from research on suicide prevention that this is NOT accurate. Yes, a person determined to kill himself or herself can always find a way, and those highly determined people are very hard to keep safe. However, the vast majority of suicidal people do not commit suicide when the means to accomplish the goal are not readily available. This is partly because the impulse to commit suicide is usually brief, over a matter of hours or a few days, and so if there is not an easy way to do it the impulse usually fades before the person can develop another plan.
Now, many mass shooters are not impulsive, they have planned their rampage for days, maybe weeks. Many have gradually stockpiled weapons and ammunition. So an argument could be made that these people might not be so easily dissuaded as the typical suicidal person. This is possible. However, the importance of ready means to the act of committing suicide or homicide should not be underestimated. The Oregon shooter apparently found it very easy to obtain many guns, as have other mass shooters. If it were not so easy, if, for example, a mentally ill person wanted to buy some guns but the only avenue for them to do so was to go through the black market, figure out how to contact an illegal arms dealer and likely travel to another part of town to make the deal, this obstacle, though it may sound small on paper, may well dissuade a person from going through with the plan. This, of course, is exactly the reason why background check laws exist–putting an obstacle in the path of a person who wants a gun to commit a crime does not necessarily detour the purchase to an illegal source (though this does happen), it may stop the plan on the spot. Psychologically, people are surprisingly set on the plans they make, and often have a hard time improvising when a plan goes awry. This tends to be even more true of the mentally ill person, whose intense emotional state tends to lead toward a myopic view of his/her options. This “tunnel vision” is a well-documented phenomenon; people under intense stress (mentally ill or not) tend to have a hard time looking outside of a single plan for a solution to their problems, and this myopia or rigidity increases in proportion to the severity of the mental illness. Block a plan, and the person becomes stuck and often can’t think of another path.
I would be remiss if I did not remind the reader that while the typical mass shooter is mentally ill, the typical mentally ill person is not violent. The vast majority of mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence or to hurt themselves than to hurt other people, so we should not categorically treat the mentally ill like potential mass shooters.
The bottom line is, making guns less accessible is likely to reduce the number of mass shootings, and just because a mentally person wants to kill a lot of people it does NOT mean they will find a way. We can’t stop all mass murders even with stricter gun laws, but it is more likely that the number would be reduced than increase.