The rote GOP response to mass shootings is nonsense even on the most charitable interpretation
Mental health isn't to blame. And even if it was, they won't do anything about it.
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By Noah Berlatsky
Last Tuesday, a gunman opened fire in a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, killing five. The murders are part of a brutal long-term rise in mass shootings. This is the third year in a row with more than 600 of them. It looks set to be the second worst year on record.
Yet following the attack, Virginia GOP governor Glenn Youngkin studiously avoided discussing guns. Instead, he insisted that the nation should take “a moment to reflect on the state of mind of America and Virginia and this mental health crisis that we know we are in the middle of.”
Republican politicians love to talk about mental health following mass shootings. But their expressions of concern are both wrongheaded and hypocritical. Mental illness is not the primary cause of mass shootings. And even if it was, Republicans have made clear they’re unwilling to do anything about it.
The research doesn’t back Youngkin up
The first problem with blaming mass shootings on a mental health crisis is simply that the evidence doesn’t support it. Recent research from Columbia University examining 82 mass murders throughout the world found no evidence that any of the shooters had severe mental illnesses, such as psychotic disorders or schizophrenia. Seth Norrholm, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University, pointed out that “executing murderous plots such as mass shootings at schools, grocery stores, places of worship, and public events requires a mind that is lucid and capable of producing rational thought, planning, and logical cognitive processing.”
As with mass shootings, so with violence in general. Researchers have found that only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals with serious mental illness. That means that 95 percent or more of violent acts are committed by people who aren’t mentally ill.
In fact, people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. And people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely than those without to be killed by police. The myth that mentally ill people are dangerous doesn’t prevent violence. Instead, it leads to escalating violence against those who are mentally ill.
Republican talk about mental health is just that and nothing more
Unfortunately, even as Republicans blame mental illness for violence, they often refuse to fund additional mental health resources. Shredding the social safety net continues to be a core GOP goal, and Republicans generally doesn’t want public funds to be spent on public health or welfare. After mass shootings, they say they want better mental health care. But when they have to vote for money to fund it, they balk.
The GOP’s long-running attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is also a long-running attack on mental health resources; the ACA extended mental health benefits to some 62 million people. Prior to the ACA, mental illness benefits were among the preexisting conditions for which insurers could and did often deny coverage. More recently, all but one Republican in the House of Representatives voted against a bill to increase student access to mental health and substance abuse services.
Republicans have also been at the forefront of attacks on mental health infrastructure at the state level. Following the May mass murder at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state needed “to do a better job with mental health.” But just the month before, he cut $211 million from the department that oversaw mental health programs. Republican-led states like Arkansas, West Virginia, Idaho, and Kentucky are consistently among those which provide the fewest resources for mental health care.
To his credit, Youngkin has actually talked about taking concrete steps to fund mental health care in Virginia following the Walmart shooting. He’s said he will provide more funds to help address staffing shortfalls and provide day-of treatment for those in crisis. But it’d be nice if it didn’t take mass shootings for Republicans to understand why funding services of this sort is important.
It’s the guns, stupid
More resources and more help for people who are mentally ill is welcome. But again, this will do little to reduce mass shootings, because mentally ill people are not responsible for mass shootings. The one common element in mass shootings is not mental illness, but guns — and Youngkin has set himself resolutely against all gun safety measures.
The prevalence of guns harms mentally ill people especially. That’s because people who are mentally ill are more prone than others to one kind of violence; suicide. As many as 90 percent of suicides may have a link to mental disorders, including depression, addiction, and psychosis.
The US has the highest rate of suicide of any comparable nation. Suicides account for 14 deaths per 100,000 people in the US; that’s twice the rate of the UK. The lack of mental health resources and our poor health care system is part of the reason.
But the biggest factor is almost certainly the easy availability of firearms. In 2020, suicide accounted for 54 percent of the more than 45,000 people who died of gun-related injuries in the US. Half of suicides in the US were gun related. More, a Stanford study found that men who owned handguns were eight times more likely to die by suicide than those who did not. Women who own handguns were 35 times more likely to suffer death by suicide than women without handguns.
This year so far, 73 people have died in mass shootings. That’s a horrific number. But typically more than 25,000 people die of gun-related suicide injuries in the United States every year. People will mental illness are not generally mass shooters. But they are often suicide victims. Mental health interventions won’t prevent mass shooters from getting guns. But gun control restrictions focused on making firearms less accessible is probably the single most important thing we could do to reduce deaths and serious injuries among mentally ill people.
Republicans, however, continue to have no interest in even considering the idea of new gun control laws. Rep. James Comer, the likely next chair of the Oversight Committee, demonstrated this unwillingness during his Sunday interview on Meet the Press.
Scapegoating mentally ill people is not a solution to mass shootings. It’s a way to perpetuate them. Republicans value guns more than they value people’s lives, but they don’t want to admit that outright. So they blame mental illness even as they mostly strip mental health providers of resources.
Even if the US were somehow to transform itself into a paragon of mental health care, though, it would make little difference. As long as the US is awash in guns, mass shooters will continue to kill.