Recent Mass Shootings and an Empirical Approach to Public Spending and Policy

Justin Fargason, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

With the recent attention to the horrendous tragedies that occurred in Aurora, Colorado and at the Sikh Temple in a Milwaukee suburb, there has been plenty of discussion about the place of gun control in American society. Some of the legal and policy issues raised is gun control in general, control of semi-automatic assault weapons similar to the AR-15 used in the Aurora shooting and the discussion of broader topics such as the second amendment. These are all good questions, worthy of discussion. However, I argue that there is a more broad and related question that has mostly escaped public thought.

Unfortunately, people are more interested in the narrative of a psychopathic tragedy such as the Aurora shooting than larger societal problems. The Sikh shooting getting press shocks our conscience and illustrates the absence of even the most minimal respect for human dignity and religious freedom in a few antisocial individuals. In becoming interested in these stories, people yearn for justice and show compassion and empathy for the victims, but it also raises our curiosity  and appeals to our inner Sherlock Holmes. We want to pay attention to the media until we feel satisfied that we have understood the narrative, the cops and robbers story, and ultimately decided the case as essentially a juror by media proxy. The clear sense of morality (the law) and immorality (the alleged killer) allows us to feel comfortable piecing the story together little-by-little because we feel confident there will be a nice psychological dessert when the killer is brought to justice. Even while victims and families may always still ask why, the case comes to a neat public conclusion. Something that looms so large in the public consciousness cannot escape logical conclusion.

However, with other topics, the story is not so clearly discernible. Discreet events involving more subtle public actions or private actions of relatively isolated individuals, though significant to friends and families most likely, rarely meet the public eye and never come to an intellectually logical conclusion. Justice is never done and communicated through popular media and reasons why are often never discovered. Isolated tragedies that occur in the lives of a few that are less psychologically compelling and do fit in to our cops and robbers schematic, and thus, are omitted from public discourse despite the need for public attention.

What I find to be a comparable problem to the mass shooting and gun control discussions that have abounded lately in the public media of an equally tragic nature is suicide. Many people who have not taken psychology courses have never pondered this public policy issue. Also, fewer people are aware of this problem because of families’ desire for privacy, the lack of any clear good versus evil tale, and the lack of any overtly logical conclusion such as justice being done. Suicide seems more like just a tragedy while a mass shooting seems more like something that could happen to any movie-goer. While it is easier to empathize with a movie-goer, it is harder for most of us to empathize with the person at risk or with their families when many have never gone through such a tragedy and do not have the psychological training to understand mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders. Everyone knows to tell friends to avoid bad neighborhoods where shootings are somewhat likely to occur, but friends do not often recognize friends’ behavior as problematic or even harder to recognize her/his thinking as depressed. Many people go through small down times and some experience depression, but we are lucky that relatively few of us have ever experienced severe, suicidal depression. We can identify with the movie-goer in the theater at Aurora but never believe that one of our friends could have a serious depression problem or a substance abuse disorder.

Regardless of what might be inappropriate responses to substance abuse both in private and in public such as criminalization or private stigma, public organizations and private research have compiled meaningful and reliable data on the societal problem of suicide. In the latest final study reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention related to the recent gun control debates is that 59.8% of gun-related deaths were from suicide, while only 36.7% were due to homicide.1 The overall numbers related to suicide from any instrumentality of causation were that there were 36,909 suicides in the United States in 2009 while 16,799 homicides, more than half less. These numbers illustrate two main points. (1) As is pretty obvious, there are many more homicides than the key, media-emphasized mass shootings that make the news. (2) Suicide is actually substantially, a much bigger problem than homicide in the United States.

In terms of explaining the problem further and being inquisitive into what can be done to allay the problem, Camelia Minoiu of Columbia University and Antonio Rodriguez Andrés of Chile, conducted a novel economic study of United States suicide data over fifteen years. 2  Instead of studying the traditional psychological variables such as the relationship between certain conditions such as depression and substance abuse that had already been extensively researched and shown extensively, they studied the relationship between public health expenditures and other factors such as gender, economic inequality, and divorce and whether these factors affected suicide rates. They controlled for sociological, demographic, and geographic variables to make sure nothing confounded their data. They only studied the age groups of 26-69. Minoiu and Andrés wanted to test economic variables that would not be present in youth and the elderly that are likely to not be working.

Minoiu and Andres found that a .01 increase in public health spending, from 6% to 7%, results in a significant benefit in decreasing suicides, overall across all experimental variables. An increase in only 1% in public expenditure decreased suicides by an average of 1.54% in the following year. Also, the increase in public health spending had a statistically significant effect on decreasing male suicides, which account for four times more suicides than for females, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.2 Considering a population studied less by a researchers, a 5% increase in spending decreases female suicides to a statistically significant degree and a 10% increase decreases female suicide rates by 10.7%. Minoiu and Andrés found that divorce rates, income inequality, and unemployment were statistically significant factors in female suicide, an area not often studied by researchers that needs to be studied further.

In terms of other experimental variables, Alabama ranked 18th out of 47 states for average suicide rate over a fifteen year period from 1982-1997 while ironically, the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia ranked first. Also, there are large differences across races. White people are nearly three times more likely than African Americans to commit suicide and Native Americans have the highest rate of all.3 Additional factors that are even more researched are those such as whether a person is mentally ill or has a substance abuse disorder.4 According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), those with mental illnesses particularly depression and also substance abuse disorders are much more likely than everyone else to commit suicide.5 NIMH reports that a therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy reduces suicide attempts by 50% after a person’s first attempt.

According to NIMH, suicide is even more dangerous for those 15-24, being the third leading cause of death in that age group. NIMH also concluded from data in its study that the elderly are more likely than the general population to complete suicide. As mentioned previously, Minoiu and Andrés studied a section of the population, 26-69, that from other data is at a comparably less chance for suicide. In other words, it is entirely possible that their findings on public expenditures would apply even more to adolescents and the elderly who may not have the same combination of support of coworkers, access to medical care, and friends that working age people are more likely to procure.

In proposing a solution, I argue that Congress and state legislatures should devote additional public resources. Further discussions on limited gun control should be emphasized on reducing the availability of guns, even perhaps to a limited degree such as only focusing on pistols and non-sporting weapons of those who have recently been through a divorce, those with mental illnesses that are not in remission, or those with current substance abuse problems. Particular emphasis should also be placed on preventing suicides among at risk populations such as those 15-24 and the elderly who may not have developed as much social support or may not have as many resources as those of a working age to alleviate their risk factors for suicide.

From this data, it is clear that more media attention, public resources, and social acceptance of mental illnesses should be garnered to alleviate suicide and aim to make suicide prevention a culturally interesting topic. While it may be only natural for public attention such as media coverage to focus on horribly tragic but relatively small scale events such as mass shootings, the more that people focus on even larger, preventable concerns such as suicide prevention, the more individual and societal liberty will be attained.

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