Mental Illness and Violence

Clearly, some individuals are prone to committing acts of violence, whereas other individuals (in modern civilizations, the overwhelming majority of individuals) are not.

I see three important conditions that can predispose a person to committing an act of violence: mental illness, psychopathy, and dangerous ideology. (A fourth condition, while more important, is fairly obvious: some people, through mental habit and irresponsible choices, turn themselves into criminals.)

Mental Illness

The mentally ill person suffers paranoid delusions, hears demonic “voices” or the like, etc.

We know, for example, that the Aurora murderer was seeing a psychiatrist, and she was so disturbed by his behavior that she contacted the police “several weeks” prior to his murderous rampage. (Please note that mental illness does not automatically negate moral and legal culpability.)

Regarding the recent murders near Texas A&M, the murderer’s mother regarded her son as seriously mentally ill.

A psychological report about the Tucson murderer notes his mental illness.

Apparently, the mentally are are not getting the help they need.

Last year, the Denver Post published an article titled, “Mental health services in a fragile state in Colorado.”

Following the Aurora murders, the Denver Post published the following comments by Clayton Cramer:

In most states in 1960, involuntary commitment required only a preponderance of evidence that a mentally ill person would benefit from treatment. If you were exhibiting evidence of mental illness, there was a good chance that you would be hospitalized, perhaps for a few months, perhaps longer.

The primary reason was for your own safety, but a side effect was that the society as a whole was safer.

As stricter due-process standards for commitment became public policy in the 1970s, state mental hospitals first emptied, then closed. (We now have as many mental hospital beds in this country per capita as we did in 1850 — and we did not have enough then.)

Murder rates rose. Random acts of mass murder, usually committed by people with mental illness histories (and not always with guns) became depressingly common. . . .

There were hundreds of lesser-known mass murders. Over the last 40 years, there have also been tens of thousands of almost unknown individual murders committed by the deinstitutionalized mentally ill.

In a recent talk, Dave Kopel argued that the government should fund more mental health services.

I am very sympathetic with the idea that it’s important to get appropriate help for the mentally ill. I am also deeply concerned about the civil liberties issues involved.

As for methods of financing, I do not have a well-developed theory on the proper relationship of government to mental health services. On one hand, clearly there is a relationship between mental health and public safety. On the other hand, most of what constitutes mental health services has little if anything to do with public safety. To me, this is not a central issue in today’s context, though it would be an interesting research project for somebody.

Of more immediate concern is the problem of forcibly locking up people because of an alleged mental illness. Recently Cato published a series of articles on this very topic.

Most mentally ill people do not harm others. Basic principles of justice demand that we not punish people for crimes they might commit. Surely involuntary confinement constitutes the most serious form of coercion (short of torture and execution).

Yet providing treatment for the mentally ill need not involve involuntary confinement. It could involve proactively offering help to those who need it.

Those who decline institutionalization might reasonably be subject to additional police scrutiny, if they pose a threat to others. As to whether and how the freedom of the severely mentally ill to, for example, purchase drugs and firearms should be legally restricted, I have no well-developed opinion.

The huge problem, as usual, is, who watches the watchers? Who evaluates the evaluators? Once the government gets in the business of forcibly restricting the freedoms of the mentally ill, what’s to stop government agents from abusing this power?

Indeed, what’s to stop government agents from arbitrarily declaring any political enemy or pesky critic to be “mentally ill?”

Yes, I fear murderers—though, as I’ve suggested, many people have a wildly disproportionate fear of the risks of homicide relative to other causes of death. But I fear a tyrannical government much more than I fear murderers. By my evaluation of the future, I’m more likely to be unjustly confined or physically harmed by the government than I am to face somebody trying to kill me.

My tentative conclusion, then, is this. Offer help to the mentally ill, but forcibly limit the freedoms of the mentally ill only in the case of a person who, by word and deed, poses a clear and present danger to the safety of others. (For example, if somebody threatens to shoot up a school or a movie theater, that should definitely raise a red flag with law enforcement.)


Michael Shermer argues that a small but nontrivial portion of the population consists of psychopaths, who are disproportionately likely to commit acts of violence.

Therefore, Shermer argues, the government should ban all semi-automatic “assault” rifles.

There are many problems with Shermer’s position.

The most important problem is that Shermer would violate the civil rights of millions of Americans in a futile effort to stop a tiny number of psychopaths.

Shermer has no idea what an “assault rifle” even is, he ignores other guns of comparable capacity (pump-action shotguns, semi-automatic handguns), he ignores the usefulness of guns in self-defense, and he ignores the ability of would-be criminals to obtain illegal guns. See my longer post on the issue of firearms.

Shermer also here ignores the other two factors that often lead to violence: mental illness (or, if we count psychopathy as a type of mental illness, other types of mental illness), and dangerous ideology.

The problem of dealing with psychopaths is comparable to that of dealing with the mentally ill: How can we justify restricting the freedoms of those who might commit a crime in the future? The film Minority Report was intended as a warning, not a road map.

Whatever is done regarding the mentally ill and the psychopathic, clearly it is wrong—outrageously wrong—to restrict the freedoms of those who are not mentally ill and not psychopathic, in order to try to prevent harm by members of those two groups.

Dangerous Ideology

Far and away the greatest cause of violence, historically and today, is dangerous ideology. That is the cause of all religious wars, the Nazi holocaust, the Communist holocaust, the fascist Japanese war machine, and the modern Islamist assaults that now plague many regions of the world.

The Columbine murders seem to have been motivated by a nihilist ideology, not by mental illness or psychopathy (formally defined).

Notice that Michael Shermer does not call for prior restraint of free speech, even though expression is what spreads these dangerous ideologies.

The way to defeat dangerous ideologies, qua ideologies, is to argue against them. The way to defeat those who, motivated by dangerous ideologies, pose a specific and demonstrable danger to others, is to take police action against them at the civilian level, and military action against them at the regional or national level.

I would also note in this context that the danger of homicidal ideologies is a good reason (but hardly the only reason) to support the right of the people to keep and bear arms.


The central issue here is protecting the innocent against those who would do them harm. Part of that means protecting the innocent from the mentally ill, the psychopathic, and the homicidally zealous. An equally important goal—or, arguably, a far more important goal—is protecting peaceable citizens from the abuses of government.