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Politics

The Political Strategy Behind the GOP’s Post-Shooting ‘Mental Health’ Playbook

How blaming gun violence on the unpredictable actions of the mentally ill can sidetrack a push for more meaningful policy solutions.

The most prominent Republican response to the televised shooting deaths of two Virginia journalists last week arguably came from Donald Trump. The Republican presidential candidate, speaking on CNN, attributed the murder of WDBJ’s Alison Parker and Adam Ward to the shooter’s state of mind: “This isn’t a gun problem, it’s a mental problem.” It was a familiar refrain. “These are sick people,” Trump said in the aftermath of John Russell Houser’s deadly rampage in a Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater. “This has nothing to do with guns.”

Though not known for adhering to the party talking points, Trump is following a script set by fellow Republicans. After nine people were murdered in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, Jeb Bush said in a town hall meeting that America should focus on mental health care, not new gun laws. (He hit the same note during an appearance at a high school in Florida on Tuesday.) Ted Cruz has echoed that call, saying reformers should instead “go after people with serious mental illness.” The phenomenon is not confined to the 2016 election cycle: In response to the 2012 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, Mitt Romney urged more emphasis on helping people with mental illness — not restricting access to guns. One year earlier, just days after Jared Lee Loughner fatally shot six people in a supermarket parking lot, Conservative Utah Senator Mike Lee proclaimed: “I don’t think we can tie this incident to anything other than a person who was either evil or mentally insane or some combination of the both.”

Mental health is also often the focus of Republican legislative efforts to deal with outrage over mass shootings. After Elliot Rodgers’ 2014 shooting spree in Santa Barbara, Pennsylvania, Republican Congressman Tim Murphy introduced a bill that would have encouraged lighter restrictions on involuntary outpatient commitment, which ultimately bars patients from buying guns. When introducing his bill, Murphy said that “before there was shooter Elliot Rodgers, there was Adam Lanza in Newtown, Jared Loughner in Tucson, James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado, and Aaron Alexis at the Washington Navy Yard…What makes these painful episodes so confounding is the reality that so many tragedies involving a person with mental illness are entirely preventable.” (Democrats in the House also introduced a mental health bill after Rodgers’ shooting, though it directly addressed dangerous individuals’ access to guns.) Early this August, Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act. The bill has been the party’s most significant policy response to this summer’s wave of high-profile shootings, and focuses exclusively on law enforcement’s relationship with the severely mentally ill: Cornyn’s proposal would divert some severely mentally ill persons from incarceration to psychiatric facilities and encourage states to report more complete mental health records to the background check system. (The bill would also would allow those involuntarily committed to quickly regain their ability to buy guns.)

Superficially, there’s some factual basis for this tack: like many mass shooters, all of the perpetrators of this summer’s widely-covered attacks have had personality traits that disturbed many who knew them. Vester Flanagan lost his job at WDBJ for his aggressive treatment of coworkers, and the 23-page manifesto he sent to news outlets mentioned that he had killed his two pet cats; cruelty to animals has long been linked to violent behavior and severe psychiatric conditions like Antisocial Personality Disorder. Houser, the Lafayette movie theater shooter, was once ordered by a judge to receive psychiatric evaluation. Mohammad Youssef Abulazeez, who killed four people at a Chattanooga military reserve installation after shooting up a recruiting station, was said by his family to suffer from depression. Accused Charleston murderer Dylann Roof maintained an unsettling online presence and disturbed his roommates to the point that, for a time, they hid his gun.

But for opponents of stronger gun laws, blaming these horrifying episodes squarely on the unpredictable actions of the severely mentally ill can also serve a strategic purpose, by sidetracking — or entirely sidelining — any push for policy solutions. Though the federal background check system’s (NICS) second largest body of records on people barred from buying guns is comprised of the mentally ill, none of this summer’s headline-making shooters met its standards for being judged mentally unfit for gun ownership — not even Houser, despite being well known to various local jurisdictions for his unsettling behavior. That’s not because they weren’t dangerous, as is now brutally clear. It’s because no judge or legal body adjudicated any of them mentally ill, the only way NICS blocks a potential purchaser on psychiatric grounds. To include people like Flanagan, Houser, Abdulazeez, or Roof in the database would require a substantial expansion of the criteria for qualifying as mentally unfit.

And no Republicans have actually suggested doing that. It’s clear many of their constituents would be up in arms if they did. As Jacob Sullum, a senior editor of libertarian Reason magazine, wrote after Flanagan’s backstory came to light, “once you expand the definition of ‘crazy people’ beyond the current standard of forcible psychiatric treatment, it’s not clear where you stop.” He came to the conclusion that, “‘stronger mental health screenings for prospective gun owners,’ as ABC describes [father of victim Alison Parker] Andy Parker’s proposal, begin to look a lot like…mass disarmament.” Libertarians and the “from my cold, dead hands” crowd aren’t the only ones who stand against expanding the mental health prohibition on buying guns to cover those with severe diagnoses but who nonetheless have not been committed or judged mentally unfit. Many mental health advocates also oppose limiting access to guns for people with severe psychiatric illnesses, since such measures could discourage people with those disorders from seeking treatment.

Add it all up, and the “mental health” post-shooting playbook looks as calculated to ensure political inaction as it is the appearance of sensitivity. The general public would hardly disagree with statements by Trump, Bush, and others that the severely mentally ill pose a danger; in fact, surveys show that more Americans blame failures of the mental health system for mass shootings than any other factor. Meanwhile the Republican base — not to mention mental health professionals — would hardly countenance any action to expand the reach of background checks to block gun purchases by people with personality disorders or other mental health issues that are not quite so debilitating as conditions that require hospitalization, like schizophrenia or psychosis. So politicians can make statements like “The common thread we see in many of these cases is a failure in the system to help someone who is suffering from mental illness” (Scott Walker, the day after the WDBJ shooting), knowing full well they will not result in any action that could anger their pro-gun supporters.

In fact, framing incidents of gun violence as the product of unsettled perpetrators, versus firearms risks, may influence support for given solutions among the general public. An NPR article published on August 31 describes a psychiatric study in which two groups of subjects were given hypothetical news articles about a mass shooting, slightly altered to emphasize different underlying causes. Readers of the version emphasizing the need to “keep dangerous guns off our streets” were more likely to support limits on gun magazine capacity.

The irony of the psychiatric turn in debate on new gun law is that, for the most part, a body of research shows the severely mentally ill are among the least of our worries when it comes to violent crime, especially when compared to other risk factors. Alcohol, for example, is a factor in 40 percent of all violent acts committed in the United States today, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatry professor, argues that if the goal is to reduce gun violence, piling on the mentally ill won’t work. “As a category,” he says, “people who have severe mental illness — even people who’ve been hospitalized — represent less of a risk of gun violence than many people not covered by the country’s background check system.” What’s more, disqualifying mental health records rank notably low among the top reasons people are denied gun purchases by the NICS system — 18,678 denials over 17 years, compared to 674,232 for criminal convictions and 104,768 for addiction to a controlled substance. Those numbers suggest that comparatively few severely mentally ill people are even trying to get their hands on guns in the first place.

In a recent paper co-authored by Duke psychiatry professor Jeffrey Swanson, public health experts wrote that “gun violence and mental illness are complex but different public health problems that intersect only at the edges.” Swanson and his colleagues recommended prohibiting altogether different categories of people from buying guns, such as those with a history of violence or abusing alcohol, rather than the mentally ill. The political facts suggest the “mental problem” could be just as much a distraction from the true causes of gun violence as Bill O’Reilly’s diagnosis that Planned Parenthood was somehow to blame for Vester Flanagan’s rampage.

[Photo: Flickr user iprimages]