Guns, schools, and mental illness: potential concerns for physicians and mental health professionals

Mayo Clin Proc. 2013 Nov;88(11):1272-83. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.08.016. Epub 2013 Oct 16.


Since the recent shootings in Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and Newtown, Connecticut, there has been an ever-increasing state and national debate regarding gun control. All 3 shootings involved an alleged shooter who attended college, and in hindsight, evidence of a mental illness was potentially present in these individuals while in school. What appears to be different about the current round of debate is that both pro-gun control and anti-gun control advocates are focusing on mentally ill individuals, early detection of mental illness during school years, and the interactions of such individuals with physicians and the mental health system as a way to solve gun violence. This raises multiple questions for our profession about the apparent increase in these types of events, dangerousness in mentally ill individuals, when to intervene (voluntary vs involuntary), and what role physicians should play in the debate and ongoing prevention. As is evident from the historic Tarasoff court case, physicians and mental health professionals often have new regulations/duties, changes in the physician-patient relationship, and increased liability resulting from high-profile events such as these. Given that in many ways the prediction of who will actually commit a violent act is difficult to determine with accuracy, physicians need to be cautious with how the current gun debate evolves not only for ourselves (eg, increased liability, becoming de facto agents of the state) but for our patients as well (eg, increased stigma, erosion of civil liberties, and changes in the physician-patient relationship). We provide examples of potential troublesome legislation and suggestions on what can be done to improve safety for our patients and for the public.

Keywords: ADA; APA; American Psychiatric Association; Americans with Disabilities Act; NICS; National Instant Criminal Background Check.

MeSH terms

  • Firearms / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Mental Health / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Physicians / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Schools / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Violence / legislation & jurisprudence*