The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans in Congress just made it easier for mentally ill people to get guns

(John Locher/Associated Press)

With Washington under complete Republican control, the gun lobby finds itself in an odd position: Without anything to fight against, which is what they usually do, they have to find something to fight for. So what did they come up with? How about making sure that people suffering from mental illnesses can still have access to firearms?

That’s what Republicans did Wednesday. A bill to undo an Obama administration regulation restricting gun access from certain mentally ill people had already passed the House, and Wednesday it passed the Senate.  

One can certainly argue that this is utterly ludicrous. But there’s a larger issue at work here about one of America’s most powerful lobbies. Despite the fact that their allies are in power, this is actually not a uniformly good time for them.

I’ll explain why in a moment, but this current bill concerns an estimated 75,000 people, not all people with mental illnesses. The Obama administration wrote a regulation saying that people who had applied for Social Security disability benefits because of a mental condition, and whose condition makes them incapable of managing their own finances, should be referred to the FBI background check system and prevented from buying guns. That’s what Republicans have now reversed.

This affects a limited number of people, and it should be said that the real gun problem today isn’t those with mental illnesses, it’s the estimated 300 million guns in circulation. As much attention as mass shootings get, most of the 10,000 or so gun homicides we have every year in America are committed by people who appear perfectly sane. Those homicides involve abusive husbands who kill their wives, arguments that get out of control and grudges settled with deadly force.

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Yet every time there’s a high-profile mass shooting, gun advocates say, “The problem isn’t guns, it’s mental illness. We just need to keep guns out of the wrong hands.” As though in every other advanced country where they have tiny numbers of gun deaths, it must be because there’s no mental illness. Nevertheless, no matter how disingenuous think the argument is, that still doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to prevent people with serious mental illnesses from being armed. You’d think that at the very least this is something we could agree on. Or as gun advocate John Cornyn of Texas once said, “No one I know believes that a mentally ill person should be able to purchase a firearm.” But apparently that no longer applies.

You might ask why the gun lobby cares about this (and when I use the phrase “gun lobby,” I’m referring to the symbiotic partnership of the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers). The simplest answer is that they’ve almost run out of new laws to advocate for. They have one big goal for the era of Republican rule: national concealed-carry reciprocity, which would mean that if you have a permit to carry in Oklahoma or Idaho, you could bring your gun to Connecticut or California no matter what their laws say.

Beyond that, the gun lobby’s agenda seems like the product of a bunch of guys who have gotten almost everything they want and have just about run out of ideas. So the supposedly urgent items on their list are things like eliminating restrictions on silencers. Just imagine how glorious life will be when that terrible cloak of oppression no longer hangs heavily over the lives of every freedom-loving American.

Much as they might say in public how happy they are, the truth is that total Republican rule has drawbacks for the gun lobby. Their ideal situation is to have a GOP Congress that will stop any restrictions from being enacted, while also having a Democratic president they can paint as a cartoon villain to scare gun owners with. Whenever there’s a Democrat in the White House, the NRA can cry, “He’s coming for your guns!!!,” which always means more people signing up for memberships, more contributions and more gun sales for the manufacturers that are the group’s patrons.

Somehow America’s gun owners fall for it every time, despite the fact that we keep having Democratic presidents who do not actually send jackbooted thugs to break down every American’s door and confiscate their arsenals. Perhaps that’s because the profile of the typical gun owner has changed: Gun ownership has been on a steady decline for the last few decades, yet gun sales have never been higher, which means that the gun owners that remain are buying more and more guns.  

In any case, the NRA’s lock on the Republican Party — in which virtually every Republican officeholder takes the position dictated by the group even when it places them at odds with their constituents — means that legislation on even the most common-sense restrictions is impossible. We couldn’t even pass a universal background check bill supported by more than 90 percent of the public (including the overwhelming majority of gun owners) after 20 elementary school children were massacred at their school.

So the gun lobby really never has much to worry about. But with a Republican president, they can’t warn that the government is coming for your guns. Their ordinary tools of fear, anger and hatred become far less effective. So they’re racking their brains to devise new pro-gun laws to pass. How about if we legalize armor-piercing “cop killer” bullets? Or require that all public school teachers pack heat? Or a national stand-your-ground law making “He was giving me the stink-eye” a legal defense for murder charges? Or a federally-financed “AKs are A-OK!” campaign?

I’m sure they’ll come up with something.