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Public Mass Murderers and Federal Mental Health Background Checks

NCJ Number
Law & Policy Volume: 40 Issue: 2 Dated: 2018 Pages: 133-147
James Silver; William Fisher; John Horgan
Date Published
15 pages
This study examined whether increasing the robustness of the mental health background database will likely prevent potential public mass murderers from buying guns.

The litany of public mass murders, from Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Las Vegas, and Parkland to less well-known incidents that occur yearly, has focused national attention on federally mandated mental health background checks of prospective gun purchasers. The call has been to put more gun-disqualifying mental health records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database to prevent "deranged" murderers from buying guns and running amok. The current study built on research that shows serious mental illness contributes little to the risk of interpersonal violence and that few persons with serious mental illness acquire gun-disqualifying mental health records. It examined whether public mass murderers are among the small percentage of those with serious mental illness who do have gun-disqualifying mental health records. Using a large sample of 106 U.S. offenders who used a firearm to commit a public mass murder from 1990 to 2014, the study found that half of the offenders had a history of mental illness or mental health treatment, but less than 5 percent had gun-disqualifying mental health records. Implications of these findings and recommendations for further research are discussed. (publisher abstract modified)