Gun Control Versus Mental Illness: After Florida Shooting, Trump Deepens a Fraught Debate

florida shooting psychology
Loriell Chludinsky hugs her son, 11-year-old Kaiden Vaughn, during a prayer vigil on February 15 for families of the victims of a mass shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After more than two dozen people died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump said Thursday that his administration was committed to tackling "the difficult issue of mental health." The person identified as the shooter previously sought help for mental illness, the Washington Post reported.

So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2018

The shooting in Parkland is now among the most deadly mass shootings in American history. Debates following these tragic events in the U.S. have become increasingly polarized, with some focused on gun control and others focused on mental health. Trump's statement did not include any mention of gun control. Yet many question if the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is an appropriate time to discuss mental health.

Newsweek asked Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University who has studied extreme psychological behaviors, to weigh in. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Are mass shooters by definition mentally ill?

The best numbers and best statistics suggest that no more than 4 to 5 percent of mass shooters are mentally ill, as defined by criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (a professional psychologists' handbook, also known as the DSM-V).

I personally don't quite see it that way because of problems with the DSM-V itself and the fact that there's clearly mental issues when you slaughter 17 people who you don't even know. The very fact of doing it indicates clearly, to me, deranged emotions, a deranged moral compass, deranged cognitions. Such perpetrators nearly always end up dead or in prison. Just on the basis of reward and punishment, there's an inevitable punishment but the reward is so great that you go ahead and do it despite the punishment—which to me bespeaks disordered cognition.

What problems are you talking about with the DSM-V?

Can you really capture a mass murderer like this person in the extant diagnostic systems? The DSM-V generalizes from cases, very few of which are like this person, who was very extreme. He killed 17 people and wounded 14 and walked away from it, literally strolled away.

That behavior is so extreme that my own feeling is we don't have a psychological system to capture that. Maybe we need to try to put together a clearer picture of each one of these people, find the common ingredients, and then see if we can come up with a fresh look at diagnosis that might be helpful in prevention.

Can we actually predict if people might do something like this?

We get very little research time with mass murderers and serial killers. So we go on this historic hunt for priors that will allow us to predict the next heinous event so that we can stop it. And they haven't yielded a whole heck of a lot. I can't think off-hand of a mass murderer that's been predicted with any precision at all.

I think most people would argue that an important part of prevention would be taking away the guns.

Absolutely right, there's no question about that. Guns are a prime issue. Apparently 40 percent of all the world's personal weapons are in the hands of Americans. That's a horrendous number. You probably know about the weapons effect, which suggests that the mere presence of a weapon seems to makes aggression more likely. To the extent that that holds up in the real world, over and over again, then that clearly says that the mere presence of weapons is the problem.