If We Can’t Have Gun Control In America, Can We At Least Have Adequate Mental Health Services?


I started writing this piece last week about an attack in Orlando that killed five just before the one-year anniversary of another Orlando mass shooting. As if that already wasn’t a damning enough comment on the frequency of mass killings in America, before I could even finish, other active shooter situations knocked it out of the news cycle, including at least three on the president’s birthday — the attack on Congressman Scalise in Virginia, a mass shooting at a UPS facility that killed three in San Francisco, and a shooting near Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn (there was another lockdown at Travis Air Force Base that turned out to be a false alarm).

The news cycle barely has room for all of them. Just as an experiment, type in a Google News search for “London attack,” and then compare the results to what you get for “Orlando attack.”

If it seems like there’s a lot more coverage of the van attack on London Bridge that killed seven last Saturday than the attack at the Fiamma factory in Orlando in which a disgruntled employee killed five former co-workers and then himself last Monday, you’re not imagining things. In fact, just look at our president’s Twitter feed. In the days since the London attack, he’s tweeted a report of the attack, a message of support to London, blamed the London attack on political correctness, attacked London’s mayor over his response, (twice), pointed out that the London attacker didn’t use guns, and restated his travel ban (at least five times), without once mentioning the Orlando shooting.

Interesting, because this time last year, he was all over the other Orlando mass shooting, tweeting at least four times about the infamous Pulse Nightclub attack that killed 49 exactly 51 weeks before the Fiamma factory incident.

The disconnect is easy to explain. While the Paris attack was a “terrorist” attack and the Fiamma factory just your run-of-the-mill disgruntled non-Muslim mass murderer, Pulse Nightclub straddled both lines, and thus rated a mention. The president gets very excited every time a killer shouts “Allahu Akhbar.”

It should come as no surprise, but the threat of “random” terror vastly outweighs that of “Islamic” terror. In 2014, for every one American killed by terrorists at home or abroad, 1,049 were killed by gun violence. Sure, as the NRA folks will certainly rush to point out, that number includes suicides and accidents (what, those don’t count?). But if that stat’s not “random” enough for you, you’re still twice as likely to get shot by a toddler than a terrorist. Should we have a travel ban on babies? (Come to think of it, maybe that’s not a bad idea…)

But I’m falling into the same old trap, trying to decide which flavor of murderer is the scariest. It’s like when movie studios get us arguing over which actor would make the best Spider-Man while they reboot it for the 17th time. These days, whenever there’s a mass shooting, we wait breathlessly for a motive and then whichever side “wins” (Islamic terrorist being a big win for the right, right-wing hate crime being a big win for Democrats) gets to spike the football on Twitter (that the Virginia shooter was apparently a Bernie Sanders supporter is rare win for both sides). I state the obvious here, but this is no way to live.

Trump doesn’t mention random gun violence because he knows a certain subset of Americans automatically equate it with gun control. It’s hard to talk about, because even the qualifier — “gun” violence — is enough of a trigger word (har) that some people who just like guns and want to keep shooting them will immediately shut down. That’s why Trump was so thrilled that the London attacker killed people without guns. Finally, a killing even the NRA can be outraged about!

Surely, the facts would suggest that gun owners’ fears are mostly irrational. Obama spent eight years in office, a few of them with a Democratic majority in both houses, without ever passing much in the way of substantive gun control — this despite the impetus of Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, Pulse, etc. And yet to this day, millions of Americans are still convinced that jack-booted thugs are going to break down our doors and steal our AR-15s any day now. But feelings don’t operate on facts. “Gun Control,” like terrorism, has become an existential threat.

And while I’ll never understand the complete unwillingness to compromise (expanded background checks? not letting the mentally ill or people on terror watch lists or people with a history of domestic abuse buy guns?), if I try hard I can understand the general hostility towards gun control as an idea. For one thing, it’s a little disingenuous. For me and most of the people I know, both liberal and conservative, the ideal state would be “no gun control for me and a near total gun ban for everyone else.” We all simultaneously yearn for fewer guns around and have a vague sense that we probably need one. A lot of liberals became doomsday preppers overnight after Trump got elected.

There’s also the principle of not wanting to have your personal liberty curtailed because of the worst among us. Which is to say, let’s not pretend that shooting guns isn’t fun, or that the idea of someone who’s never done anything wrong having to change their enjoyable hobby for people who have isn’t somewhat disappointing. You don’t necessarily deserve to be demonized for thinking that.

Am I bending over backwards to find common ground here? Perhaps, but lobbyist groups’ MO is to try to convince us that there’s no common ground when there’s actually plenty. In this post-Roger Ailes social universe where everyone who doesn’t agree with you politically is a dangerous psychopath and a threat to your very existence, it behooves us to try to find those small patches of territory where an overwhelming majority of us just might agree. Because otherwise we’re never going to get anything done, and inaction is killing us.

Admittedly, it hasn’t gone well so far. In the wake of past shootings, NRA mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre, when he wasn’t spouting bullshit about good guys with guns and more guns being the solution to all our gun problems, occasionally offered some not terrible ideas (regardless of whether he actually believed them). After Sandy Hook, he said the issue wasn’t guns but mental health (a common refrain), and suggested “an active national database for the mentally ill.” It was mental health again after the Navy Yard shooting, with LaPierre suggesting “They need to be committed is what they need to be, and if they’re committed, they’re not at the Navy Yard.” Over and over he’s said publicly that “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed.”

Whatever your gun thoughts, it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to agree that a person who commits mass murder (often suicidally) might have some mental health issues. Why not call LaPierre on his bluff?

It’s an idea so logical that the Obama Administration tried to do just that, authorizing a new rule for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that would’ve required the Social Security Administration to provide the names of those on disability for mental health issues (people who had been unable to manage their personal affairs) to prevent them from purchasing firearms. Basically, if the government deemed you mentally suspect enough to give you money, you wouldn’t get to buy guns. It would’ve affected an estimated 75,000 people, and accomplish almost exactly what LaPierre said he wanted following the Navy Yard shooting.

“I’ve been into this whole (background) check business for 20-some years; I’ve said the system is broken for 20 years and nobody listens,” he said. “It’s broken in terms of our military bases…. On the gun check, the NRA supported the gun check because we thought the mental records would be in the (national instant check) system, we thought criminals would be in the system. And we thought they would be prosecuted.”

Naturally, the rule was repealed before it could even go into effect, with help from the NRA (but also the ACLU). In February the Senate voted 57-43 to repeal it, with the Republicans joined by Democrats Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and independent Angus King of Maine. Painted as a victory for freedom by its backers, Senator Grassley and Mitch McConnell naturally had lots to say about the flaws of the rule and the “vague characteristics that do not fit into the federal mentally defective standard” which might keep — gasp! — some people getting disability from buying guns. And nothing to say about how they might improve it.

Okay, so that one’s a no-go. Uh… what about keeping people on the terror watch list from buying guns? Republicans hate terrorists! Even Donald Trump seemed to support that one:

Or at least, he said he was meeting with the NRA to discuss the possibility of it. It’s interesting that he’s not even embarrassed about having to clear a potential policy with an industry lobbying group. In fact he broadcasts it, because just the possibility that Trump might push back against a plainly self-interested billion dollar lobby was meant to express how much of a maverick he is compared to most of our politicians.

Closing this so-called “terror gap” is an idea supported by 84% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans, according to a Gallup Poll from June of last year. And yet it died in congress about a year ago, halted by competing amendments. Since the election of Donald Trump and a commanding majority for Republicans in congress, it’s no longer enough of a legislative priority to even rate. Which is a shame, because arguing against it again forced Republicans into disingenuous agreements with the ACLU, over concerns about due process and the constitutionality of how people are put on the terror watch and no-fly lists in the first place. It seems the only time you can get both sides to agree is in a do-nothing coalition over gun control.

It’s hard not to get discouraged at this point in the story, when it seems we’re not even allowed to talk about gun control. It seems increasingly like a non-starter, and seems likely to remain so even after a Republican congressman was himself the victim of a spree shooter. Republicans are actually calling for looser gun laws following the Scalise shooting, not tighter ones.

So we’re not allowed to talk about gun control. We can’t keep guns from the mentally ill, domestic abusers, or potential terrorists. What about mental health itself? Might we talk about deinstitutionalization, which began in the sixties? (Roughly during the same time and place where a third of all the world’s mass shootings have taken place, but maybe we don’t mention that part to the NRA).

San Francisco is a good case study here, as it’s a city widely perceived to have some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Details are still sketchy about the UPS worker who killed three co-workers and then himself at a UPS facility (using a 1911 style handgun and a Tec-9), but police sources have told local news that the man had “a history of mental health issues.”

It’s an especially relevant factor in San Francisco, home to one of the worst homelessness problems in the country, where signs of mental illness are all around. According to a 2015 study, 55% of those homeless were experiencing mental or psychiatric issues. While it’s harder to put numbers on the percentage of violent acts committed by those with mental illness, a study from the 80s found that 10% of all homicides were committed by those with mental illness.

Whether your solution is a lower, nationally uniform standard for involuntary commitment, or simply better-funded services, the problem is clear. During JFK’s presidency, he tried to improve the standard of care at frequently horrifying, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-style mental facilities. Only his plan was never fully funded. Reagan gutted the mental health budget even further, both as governor of California and as president. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, states cut at least $4.35 billion in mental health spending, the biggest cut since deinstitutionalization began. In 2010, there were 14 beds for 100,000 people, the same ratio as in 1850. There are currently three times as many mentally ill people in jails and prisons than there is space for them in hospitals.

At a time when Congress is trying to take away healthcare access to 23 million people, it’s an open question whether they’d be any more successful in improving mental health services as they were in enacting meaningful gun control. It’d be nice if one of them actually getting shot inspired them to move more quickly, but this isn’t the first time. Gabby Giffords’ shooter, Jared Loughner, was an undiagnosed schizophrenic who had a history of disruptions during which police or security were called, and it seems he basically had to kill six people before he was put in a mental health facility. And yet if you search “Jared Loughner,” most of the articles about him are about whether he was a Democrat or Republican. You’d think that would’ve been a great time to address the mental health problem everyone said there was, but it wasn’t.

Which wasn’t even a particular surprise. After all, one of the chief mental health care funding slashers, Ronald Reagan, was nearly assassinated himself by an untreated schizophrenic named John Hinckley two months into his presidency and it apparently did nothing to alter his policies.

If anything is clear after all of this, it’s that America can either have widely available guns or poor mental health funding. Trying to have both is killing us.