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Blaming Gun Violence On Mental Illness Is 'Scapegoating,' Says Middlebury Professor

A closeup on the trigger of a handgun
In an interview with VPR, Middlebury College psychology professor Matthew Kimble pushed back on the idea that the act of committing a mass shooting in and of itself proves that a perpetrator is mentally ill.

Speaking in New Hampshire earlier this month, at his first rally after deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump pointed to mental illness as the source of the violence.

"There is a mental illness problem that has to be dealt with," Trump said to a cheering crowd in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Aug. 15. "It's not the gun that pulls the trigger — it's the person holding the gun."

Trump has pulled back from support he expressed earlier for expanded background checks, and he is now mostly discussing red flag laws and calling for building more of what he calls "mental institutions."

The president is far from alone in making the link between mass shootings and mental illness, but Matthew Kimble, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, said that this is a fundamentally flawed way of looking at the issue. Kimble told VPR's Morning Edition that it's unfairly pinning blame on a vulnerable group of people.

"It's a classic example of scapegoating — taking a really complex multifactorial problem and targeting a particular group of individuals as being the ones most likely to do that," he said.

Kimble said that only about 3% of violent crimes in the U.S. can be attributable to people with serious mental illness. He also pushed back on the idea that the act of committing a mass shooting in and of itself proves that a perpetrator is mentally ill. 

"There are a lot of individuals who do horrific acts without mental illness," he said. "Often the psychological factors associated with that might be circumstances like hostility, aggression, anger, alienation, and those are factors ... that are involved with people getting involved with these types of atrocities."

Kimble added that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of violence than to commit violent acts against others. And with gun violence in particular, he said, individuals with mental illness are much more likely to use guns on themselves as opposed to others.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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