Psychotic symptoms in mass shootings v. mass murders not involving firearms: findings from the Columbia mass murder database

Psychol Med. 2021 Feb 17:1-9. doi: 10.1017/S0033291721000076. Online ahead of print.


Background: Mass shootings account for a small fraction of annual worldwide murders, yet disproportionately affect society and influence policy. Evidence suggesting a link between mass shootings and severe mental illness (i.e. involving psychosis) is often misrepresented, generating stigma. Thus, the actual prevalence constitutes a key public health concern.

Methods: We examined global personal-cause mass murders from 1900 to 2019, amassed by review of 14 785 murders publicly described in English in print or online, and collected information regarding perpetrator, demographics, legal history, drug use and alcohol misuse, and history of symptoms of psychiatric or neurologic illness using standardized methods. We distinguished whether firearms were or were not used, and, if so, the type (non-automatic v. semi- or fully-automatic).

Results: We identified 1315 mass murders, 65% of which involved firearms. Lifetime psychotic symptoms were noted among 11% of perpetrators, consistent with previous reports, including 18% of mass murderers who did not use firearms and 8% of those who did (χ2 = 28.0, p < 0.01). US-based mass shooters were more likely to have legal histories, use recreational drugs or misuse alcohol, or have histories of non-psychotic psychiatric or neurologic symptoms. US-based mass shooters with symptoms of any psychiatric or neurologic illness more frequently used semi-or fully-automatic firearms.

Conclusions: These results suggest that policies aimed at preventing mass shootings by focusing on serious mental illness, characterized by psychotic symptoms, may have limited impact. Policies such as those targeting firearm access, recreational drug use and alcohol misuse, legal history, and non-psychotic psychopathology might yield more substantial results.

Keywords: firearm; mass murder; mass shootings; mental illness; psychosis; semi-automatic.