Gun Violence: A Professional Psychology Proposal

By John Caccavale, Ph.D, ABMP
January 27, 2018 - Last updated: January 26, 2018

gun violence psychologist perspectiveGun violence continues to be a serious and growing problem. At least monthly, another mass shooting becomes the news of the day. Politically, there appears to be no sincere attempt to address gun violence by the Republican Party that controls all levels of the federal government.

I’m sure some will bristle at singling out Republicans. However, it is Republicans that continue to stonewall any reform, and they rightly deserve condemnation for an unwillingness to act to decrease these massacres.

Citing bogus arguments of “protecting” Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms, they deny that political contributions from the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby are the real reason for their opposition to gun control.

Every time a shooting occurs, they describe the event as a “mental health” problem. Yet, these same disingenuous politicians have cut the national mental health budget at every opportunity.

That being said, if Republicans want a mental health solution to gun violence, we’ll give them one – but I really have no expectation that they are interested. Their solution is more guns: guns in churches, schools and bars.

The following proposal to reduce gun violence was developed by the National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers (NAPPP) in 2012 following the massacre of 26 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It directly addresses mental health by coupling doctoral psychologists with federal databases created to identify and disallow persons diagnosed with serious mental illness and domestic violence abusers from obtaining firearms.

NAPPP’s proposal was sent to Republican members on the mental health committees in Congress in January of 2013. To date, we have received no replies.

Social responsibility

We live in a society comprised of a great diversity of behaviors and ideologies, and we seek to accommodate as many of these behaviors and ideologies as possible.

As a society, do we not have the right to ensure the safety of our citizens? Do we not have the responsibility to protect our children as they play and learn in their schools? Do we not have the right to enjoy a movie or attend church services without fear of being killed or maimed? Is the second amendment greater in scope and importance than the other constitutional amendments? Given the present environment, apparently some believe it is.

What opponents to any form of gun control deny is that the Constitution is irrelevant to dead people. The “pursuit of life and liberty” enshrined in the Constitution needs to be looked at from the perspective of living human beings. Should we continue to provide greater protection to gun owners at the expense of the rest of society, we can count on more mass killings and misery.

We should no longer tolerate people mourning the loss of family and friends because others feel a need to arm themselves with weapons designed for mass killings. As psychologists, we are deeply committed to a life as free as possible from any type of harm.

We are also committed to the needs of people experiencing mental, emotional and behavioral problems. Now that the focus is on the relationship between mental health and gun violence, it is here that psychologists and other mental health professionals can be part of the national dialogue.

However, the mental stability of a person seeking to obtain firearms is only one aspect of the wider need to control and reduce gun violence. Legislation that focuses on the types of weapons individuals should be allowed to own and related registration issues need to be part of the mix.

A beginning

The proposal outlined here is not a complete solution. It is, however, the start of a dialogue for psychologists to enter our input into the debate.

Nothing in this proposal assumes that psychologists, or anyone else, can predict future gun violence or specify which individuals will commit a crime. It is analogous to motor vehicle laws that seek to identify people who might be potentially harmful to themselves or others due to impairment. If the impairment can be eliminated or reduced to the point where it is no longer a danger, a person so affected can regain permission to drive.

The three parts to this proposal:

*Psychological assessment for initial gun acquisition and periodic review.

*Entering pass/fail results into the National Background Check Database.

*Clearing an entry in the database.

Initial assessment: Any person seeking to purchase a firearm that is statutorily legal will be required to obtain a standardized psychological assessment from a licensed doctoral level psychologist.

We restrict assessment to psychologists because most psychiatrists do not do assessments and physicians are not qualified to do them. We also exclude master’s level practitioners because they are not trained and qualified to assess persons with serious mental illness, which would be a segment of this population.

The protocol: Assessment shall be based upon instruments designated by statute and must include a thorough history. The sole objective is to identify impairments that could cause one to harm oneself or others.

For example, a person who is a domestic abuser or is experiencing a psychotic disorder, major mood disorder, cognitive deficit or severe personality disorder is most probably impaired and should not be allowed access to a firearm.

This is not a finite list. Persons denied clearance can appeal, and those who can demonstrate that they no longer are impaired can seek reassessment. Psychologists performing these assessments shall be provided legal immunity.

The issue then puts the focus on people that use guns to kill people, consistent with the argument: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Once an assessment is completed, the psychologist will issue and sign a standardized document stating that an assessment has been performed and that the person listed in the document has not demonstrated impairment.

No person shall be allowed to purchase a firearm without this official clearance document. Gun sellers must keep a copy as part of the sale documentation and this data must be entered into a national background check database so dealers, whether in retail or gun shows, will have access. Private conveyance of firearms must be reported just as motor vehicles sold by individuals are now subject to report.

Clearly, there is the possibility that a person acquires a psychological impairment after receiving clearance. This may present difficult operational problems to ensure that those persons possessing firearms who become impaired can be identified and their access to firearms restricted.

Also, there are issues of confidentiality. One solution is to require entering a patient’s name into the national background check database and providing mental health practitioners access to the names listed.

Any person who meets the statutory definition of an impairment that would deny them access to guns is to be entered into the database and not allowed to purchase or maintain firearms while in treatment.

If, and when, the impairment is no longer a factor, the provider would be required to remove the person’s name from the database. The statute would have to detail how and what to do with any firearms that such persons already possess. The firearms could be kept by the local police department until such time as the person was removed from the database and received clearance. Once clearance is obtained, the firearms could then be returned.

This proposal is not viewed as a total solution to gun violence. No solution will achieve 100 percent protection. It should be a starting point for professional psychologists to participate and have input into this growing and important national tragedy.

It is not sufficient to issue pronouncements against gun violence or any other issue that emerges. We need to be part of the solution. We need to be proactive. We need to demonstrate that we have something to offer.

Our proposal provides a framework on how mental health professionals can provide services that can help with this important issue. Gun violence will continue to rise unless all of us decide that something concrete and reasonable must be done. There is no single answer or solution.

People do have a right to acquire and own firearms. Which firearms are subject to debate but how and when people acquire firearms is an appropriate discussion for all of us to consider. As psychologists, we have talents that should become part of the discussion.

Let us hope our input will be heard and considered.

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John Caccavale, Ph.D, ABMP, is executive director of the National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers. He may be reached by email at:

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