Our GOP leaders, such as the President, along with many people on the right, say that mass shootings are not a gun problem, but a mental health issue. But it’s not an either/or problem. It’s one of several pro-gun rights arguments, along with arming teachers or installing armed guards, that miss the point. But now these people are arguing against kids.
And the kids are winning.
The public response to last week’s high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, seems somehow angrier and more committed to passing gun control than any response since Sandy Hook. I take heart in this, and feel a lot is thanks to the leadership (there’s no other word) of the students who were terrorized in those classrooms. Here are some of their messages.
Another Parkland student, David Hogg, had this to say:
“We’ve sat around too long being inactive in our political climate, and as a result, children have died. If our elected officials are not willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to continue to take money from the NRA because children are dying,’ they shouldn’t be in office and they won’t be in office because this is a midterm year and this is the change that we need.”
They’re much better at this than, say, Paul Ryan.
And unsurprisingly, they’re better at it than the President.
As for waiting to politicize a tragedy, here you go: One of the above students, Carly Novell, said she discussed gun control with her classmates while they were hiding in a closet during the shooting.
But, kids, kids, please: These mass shootings aren’t a gun problem. They’re a mental health problem. Listen to GOP Senator Joni Ernst (Iowa):
“The root cause is not that we have the Second Amendment. It is that we’re not adequately addressing mental illness across the United States. We need to focus on that, and we need to focus on substance abuse.”
Not many of these mass shooters, if any at all, exhibited substance abuse problems. And Ernst did add she was open to “look at legislation,” where “we’ll see some things come up,” whatever that means.
But hers is a common refrain: If only we focused more on treating mental illness, we can prevent mass shootings. Also, if we armed teachers and/or put armed security guards at schools, we could if not prevent shootings, at least minimize the body count.
So for today, let’s take these popular bad-faith arguments in good faith and see what exactly what it would take to implement these GOP solutions.
The Many Mental Illness Myths
We’ll start by taking Donald Trump at his word: Mass shootings are a mental health issue.
To be certain, mental health treatment in this country is neglected, and our leaders should be ashamed of that fact alone, let alone their odious hypocrisy of adopting this as a talking point only when it suits them rhetorically.
Before we hit the numbers, though, let’s put them in the proper context.
First, research shows that mass shootings aren’t linked to mental illness. Dylann Roof, for one well-known example, was methodical and well aware of what he was doing. He refused to plead insanity, expressed no remorse in his statements on trial, and has written extensively about his beliefs.
Yet Trump called the Sutherland Springs shooting this November (26 dead) a “mental health issue of the highest order.” He also called the shooter in Las Vegas this October, who carried out the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, “a very sick person.” But we still don’t know why the Las Vegas shooter did what he did. He apparently hadn’t exhibited any warning signs.
And as usual, Trump’s money isn’t where his mouth is. His budget cuts mental health funding. Most sickeningly, last year Trump approved the rollback of an Obama regulation that prevented people with mental health problems from buying guns.
AP also reports that Trump’s budget calls for a 36 percent cut to a Dept. of Education school safety grant program. The program is currently budgeted at $67.5 million, which Trump reduces by $25 million to about $40 million. We’ll put that number in context later.
So we’re starting with hypocrisy and a philosophy of ignoring the needs of the mentally ill in America. At the same time, mental health problems are on the rise in the United States. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, published a piece backed with a slew of research showing that many disorders, including depression, anxiety, and autism, have over the past few decades increased in frequency. She also showed it’s not the result of over-diagnosis. Given the rise in mental health problems, if they are in fact linked to mass shootings, which, again, they aren’t, we can expect more mass shootings in the future.
If Trump, Ryan, et al, are to be taken at their word, this should be a national emergency. But could we even practically address mental health problems in order to reduce mass shootings?
First, federal regulations only ban people who have been committed to an institute involuntarily. But following Sandy Hook some individual states, including Florida, extended that regulation to people who have at some point voluntarily committed themselves. State-level options, of course, won’t necessarily stop the problem nationwide.
Also, about 25% of Americans struggle with some type of mental illness—full disclosure, I’m one—and most of them haven’t been or shouldn’t be (like me) checked into a mental health institute. Most of us don’t voluntarily seek help, either. See: Las Vegas.
This all raises a few questions:
- Which illnesses should be regulated for firearm purchases?
- How do we define those illnesses? What about acute problems, such as rage or severe anger management issues? What’s “severe”?
- Who diagnoses them?
- Does the government certify the people doing the diagnosing?
- How do you know those illnesses were accurately diagnosed?
- How do you make sure people actually get diagnosed?
- How do you check if those diagnoses have improved with treatment? And if they’ve changed, how do you check if they’ve regressed?
- If severe anger management issues or rage are one of these metrics, what if they snap?
- If the above are metrics, how the hell do you diagnose them?
- If we can’t rely on people to report themselves, who reports them?
- How do we know whether to take those reports seriously?
- What kind of resources would it take to investigate all the individual reports of disturbing patterns of behavior?
- What kind of resources would it take to continually monitor those reports?
- Do we want federal law enforcement closely monitoring and checking in on U.S. citizens for months, perhaps years, based on some people who think they might be crazy, or because they posted stuff on social media?
- What about, say, trolls?
- And who’s in charge of making sure these diagnoses get into a federal gun control register?
- Doesn’t the NRA stridently object to federal registers?
- If one of these mentally ill people already has a gun, does the government confiscate it?
- Doesn’t the NRA stridently object to confiscation?
- What about property rights and the Fourth Amendment?
- Didn’t the NRA tell people Democrats would come for their guns?
That would be an enormous public program. Now consider we’d be doing all of it to stop mass shootings, which, though horrific, are exceedingly rare events. If you say we’d be doing it to stop gun violence, or violence generally, consider that mass shootings by mentally ill people account for less than 1% of annual gun-related homicides. Also, mental illness is not correlated with violence: People with serious mental illness contribute to about 3% of violent crimes generally.
So is this all feasible? Does anyone want a program like this? How would we pay for it? Would the GOP, who have been systemically cutting mental health programs, be willing to pay for it?
Well, if we can’t prevent those people from getting guns without implementing a massive and terrifyingly intrusive police state operation, we can at least improve security in order to deter and respond to these shootings. Right?
Protect our kids! Armed guards at all schools! Armed teachers! Better security measures!
Okay, let’s see how possible this one is. Senator Ernst said “this is not going to be an issue the federal government solves just by sending a few bucks to a community. We have to engage at all levels and have really good discussions about this.”
She’s right of course, but it wouldn’t be “a few bucks” anyway. If the right-wingers really wanted to get more armed security in place, it would cost a few billion bucks, annually.
But if you really cared about our kids, so goes this despicable argument, you’d want to do all you can protect them. So as part of this let’s install armed security and other protective measures at schools, and allow teachers to pack.
Turns out there was armed security at Parkland. The guard, though, was apparently not on campus at the time. Why? According to Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, he might have been responding to another call. These guards, she said, “are stretched very thin.” (The shooter, a former student who had obviously cased the place, knew how to get around security, but more on that in a second.)
Okay: More guards! Have them cover each other, so there’s always someone there. But who will do this job, how much will they have to be paid, who will pay for it, and how?
Let’s address the money first, because it’s easier to quantify than who would do it. We’ll start small and just look at Florida. Two guards per school for the state’s approximately 4,200 public schools, and probably more for the larger high schools, would require a statewide school guard of approximately 9,000 armed people. The average police salary in the state is about $50,000, but let’s knock that down to a low-end estimate of maybe $35,000, since these jobs would likely not require full-on police training (not exactly a good thing). So, at a salary of $35,000 per guard, the U.S. government, or the state of Florida, or local municipalities, or some combination, would have to budget at minimum an additional $147,000,000 for school security.
And pay it every year.
Okay, now let’s pull out. In all, the United States has about 133,000 schools. About 33,000 of those are private schools, so in terms of public spending we can just call it an even 100,000 schools, protected by minimally 200,000 guards.
The numbers: to pay for minimum 200,000 armed guards we’d have to allocate about $7 billion to fully guard our schools. Every year. That’s nearly the annual budget for the Department of Commerce.
We’d also have to train and arm them, and probably relocate a lot of people to cover each school.
We also just racked up a budget deficit of $666 billion.
Oh yeah: What about enormous state colleges? They’ve already got their own police, which did nothing to stop the Virginia Tech shooter, or the shooter in Umpqua, Oregon. More police, maybe? A police or guard presence in every building? Secure every building?
And what would private institutions do?
Okay, so even if citizens say there’s no price they’re not willing to pay, what are the odds anything like this actually gets through Congress? Who in their right mind thinks this is feasible?
And do you really want our teachers to carry guns? It’s not like teachers are the most stable people on the planet. Will that be a deterrent when trained armed security hasn’t been a deterrent? Would these teachers be trained, or could just anyone bring a gun, regardless of training, ability, or judgment? How would you enforce that?
How about this: The National Guard can do the job.
So in the name of arming ourselves against tyranny we’re willing to install an armed military presence in our places of public education. With our children. Sounds a lot like something a free country would do, yes? Imagine if this were Obama’s idea.
More security measures, maybe? Douglass High School had major, and costly, security measures in place, including fences and lockdown gates. They also had safety protocol designed for exactly this scenario, including safeguards against false alarms, but the shooter got around all of them.
Plus you’d have to somehow regulate, coordinate, and enforce all this stuff. This is an insane idea of an unimaginable scope that no one really wants to execute, let alone be able to pass on either side of the aisle, let alone actually implement. Brought to you by the party of small government and fiscal responsibility.
Ban Semi-Automatics and High-Capacity Magazines
What about this: We reinstate what’s known as (inaccurately) the “assault weapons ban,” which we actually put into effect with bipartisan support from 1994-2004. The legislation banned the sale of certain types of rapid-fire weapons and, perhaps more importantly, the high-capacity magazines full of ammunition. That decade saw only one major mass shooting: Columbine. And guess what? Columbine is no longer even one of the ten deadliest shootings.
In other words, none of the ten deadliest shootings in U.S. history occurred when that ban was in place. This is a relatively easy and practical way to reduce, if not the frequency, at least the lethality of mass murders of innocent people.
No one needs a semi-automatic. No one needs to be able to put one bullet into a person every second, as the Las Vegas shooter did for ten minutes, from about 300 yards away.
Would such a law stop people from getting guns? No. But it would make it harder. For instance, we have laws against child trafficking, but do people still abduct children? Yes. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a law against it, or that the law is ineffective.
We also have laws about buying beer. And it shouldn’t be easy for some kid not even old enough to buy a beer to walk into a gun shop and walk out with a semi-automatic.
If these guns weren’t easily accessible, or perhaps if all these bullets weren’t easily accessible, or, as Chris Rock propositioned, affordable, the lethality of these shootings would drop dramatically. Likely this wouldn’t have much effect on gun violence overall, but it would reduce the number of people someone can kill in a school before you can even identify that person, let alone whether they’d been mentally fit to have bought that weapon.