Sovereign Health Group Blog

Florida shooting draws attention to mental illness and guns

Posted on 01-12-2017 Posted in Mental Health, Mental Illness - 0 Comments


On Jan. 6, Esteban Santiago began firing a Walther 9mm semi-automatic pistol in Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International’s Terminal 2 baggage claim. Santiago killed five people and injured six others; an additional 36 people were injured in the panic which ensued after he started shooting.

Two months before the shooting, Santiago, an Alaska resident, appeared at the FBI’s headquarters in Anchorage. Claiming he was hearing voices and his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency, Santiago “appeared agitated, incoherent and made disjointed statements,” according to FBI Special Agent Marlin Ritzman. Santiago also told the FBI he had a gun in his car.

Santiago was taken into custody by local law enforcement and taken to a local mental health facility. According to National Public Radio, his gun was taken into evidence for safekeeping. Four days later, he was released from care. A month later, Santiago’s gun was returned to him after no wrongdoing was found.

While it’s still unclear whether the weapon in question was the same gun used in the shooting, the case is drawing attention to the issue of mentally ill people and firearms.

Gun laws and the mentally ill

There are no laws in Alaska which govern gun ownership by the mentally ill. According to the New York Times, it is possible to still purchase a firearm in Alaska if a person has:

  • Been ordered to outpatient treatment
  • Been or is in conservatorship
  • Been admitted voluntarily to a mental hospital
  • Demonstrated threats or had other diagnoses

Furthermore, despite Santiago having a history with law enforcement due to allegations of domestic violence, he had no actual felony arrests.

In the wake of violent acts like this recent shooting, it’s important to consider that despite high profile cases like Santiago’s, research has shown that most mentally ill people aren’t violent. Indeed, research has shown most mentally ill people are more likely to use guns on themselves rather than others.

An inaccurate portrayal

In 2014, the journal Health Affairs examined 400 stories which appeared in mainstream media outlets over the past 20 years. In the first half of the time period, 9 percent of the stories about mass shootings mentioned mental illness. In the second half, that percentage increased to 22 percent. Lead author Emma McGinty, Ph.D., from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release “in an ideal world, reporting would make clear the low percentage of people with mental illness who commit violence.”

It’s a finding backed up by additional research: A paper published in Annals of Epidemiology in 2014 stated only 4 percent of all violence in the United States could be directly tied to bipolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia, the three mental disorders most commonly brought up with violence.

Mental health stigma is a powerful obstacle to mental health treatment. Sovereign Health is dedicated to both providing expert mental health treatment and keeping the public accurately informed about mental health issues. We maintain comfortable and welcoming treatment centers across the United States, treating patients for mental illnesses, substance use disorders and eating disorders. A healthier life can start today – please call our 24/7 helpline for more information.

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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