After the immeasurable tragedy at Umpqua Community College in October, the same oversimplified “causes” are trumpeted furiously until their tune fades away – only to return for an encore after the next shooting.
We hear again the familiar lyrics that “nobody in their right mind” would commit such an atrocity–and therefore, “mental illness” must be to blame. And, predictably, there is the cacophony of arm-chair psychoanalyzing and lurid publicizing of the perpetrator.
Thus, it bears repeating that the link between violence and mental illness is weak. Persons with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, account for only about 4% of violent crimes in the U.S. When gun violence alone is considered, this percentage drops even lower and co-existing substance abuse and inadequate treatment are usually the major contributing factors.
While mass shootings (involving four or more victims) are often perpetrated by emotionally-disturbed individuals, there are no reliable clinical data showing that most mass shooters have specific psychiatric disorders.
A recent review by Knoll & Meloy (2014) concluded: “Mass murderers who capture media attention often appear to be suffering from psychosis. However, no research has clearly established that most are psychotic or even suffering from a serious mental illness (SMI).
In contrast, individual case studies examining the psychological makeup of mass murderers often reveal paranoid themes in their cognitions.
Even when a psychiatric disorder has been confirmed, there is no solid evidence that the shooter was motivated by the symptoms of that disorder, as opposed to long-standing resentment, rage or narcissism. In most cases, we have neither a full psychiatric evaluation nor a complete “psychological autopsy” of the shooter, making formal diagnosis impossible.
A Tale of Two Cultures
We believe that a broader, socio-cultural perspective on gun violence is in order. Compared with most other high-income countries, firearm homicide rates in the U.S. are nearly 20 times higher.
For example, the rate of gun-related violence in Canada is about one-sixth that of the U.S.
But the differences between the U.S. and Canada go deeper. As policy analyst David B. Kopel observed nearly 25 years ago, “…the American national character has been shaped by the violent, armed assertion of national independence, whereas Canada has been shaped by a reaction against the American tradition of armed violence.” 
And, in a 1992 book, Kopel contrasted the figure of the “Mountie” (of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) with that of the archetypal American “Cowboy.” Kopel observed that the Mounted Police maintained tight control of Canada’s early western settlements and that the “six-shooter” never became the symbol of Canadian freedom.*
In contrast, law and order was maintained locally in the early American West–think Wyatt Earp, Marshall Dillon, and the Winchester rifle, “the gun that won the West.”
Indeed, our cultural heritage is filled with stories linking guns with heroism, freedom and taming the wild frontier.
Ironically, the “Wild West” often had stricter gun laws than do some states today. Thus, history professor Katherine Benton-Cohen has noted that in late 1880, Tombstone, Arizona strengthened its ban on concealed weapons and outlawed carrying guns within the town limits. 
Tragically, in recent decades, American culture’s Cowboy archetype has been replaced by the angry, narcissistic Avenger. Detailed case analyses of mass shooters typically reveal aggrieved, resentful individuals with long-festering fantasies of violent revenge. 
Such individuals function (sometimes marginally) in society, and usually shun mental health treatment. To be sure, mental health professionals can help troubled individuals willing to engage in “talk therapy” and other effective interventions, such as medication or substance abuse counseling—but unfortunately, the mass shooter’s persecutory, narcissistic mindset subverts such willingness.
Instead, he seeks a form of “reverse specialness.” By becoming a lone protester against an “unjust” world, the mass shooter settles for a form of pseudo-power that allows him to “win by losing.”
Surely, this attitude represents powerfully self-centered and antisocial thinking. Yet, by itself, this world-view provides no reliable evidence of a specific psychiatric disorder. Severe and sometimes deadly narcissism may be seen in persons with and without mental illness.
But let us now take a new vantage point. It would be difficult to argue that gun violence by alienated, disgruntled individuals is a new phenomenon. So what changes may help account for our recent spate of mass shootings? Further, do more recent shootings differ even from those that began to receive media attention after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre?