After every mass shooting comes the hope that maybe this time is different: Maybe this will be the massacre that finally gets Congress to see the light and pass some reasonable gun laws that will prevent the next killing. But as the bodies stack higher and higher, nothing happens. And the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken after a gunman killed 17 people at a Florida high school, suggests that the gun lobby is winning the spin battle.
The poll confirms that the country remains evenly divided on the wisdom of banning the sale of assault weapons. That’s a clear decline from the 1990s and the early 2000s, when more than two-thirds of Americans supported such a ban. That finding, though, is not that surprising, as the assault weapons ban seems to be closely tied to partisanship. As the divides between the two parties have deepened politically and culturally, the assault weapons ban has become more and more of a litmus test. Encouragingly, there is still wide support for other smart reforms, such as universal background checks and 30-day waiting periods.
What’s more concerning is the poll’s finding that 57 percent believe that mass shootings more reflect “problems identifying and treating people with mental health problems” rather than inadequate gun control laws. Only 28 percent say the latter. (Nine percent say both.) And 77 percent believe the Florida shooting could have been prevented by more effective mental health screening.
These numbers encapsulate the success of the NRA’s favorite empty argument: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Don’t regulate guns, the NRA says, because they’re not the problem. It’s an appealingly simple argument that sounds sensible while also absolving the gun lobby and its supporters of any blame.
Yet there’s nothing factual to support it. If “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” were true, then that would mean the United States — which has far more school shootings than any other country — either has the worst mental-health care system in the world or the most people with mental illness in the world. But mass shootings are far more common in the United States than in both countries with higher incidence of mental health issues such as clinical depression and countries with worse mental health care. South Africa, just to pick an example, has recently been in a “mental health crisis,” yet school shootings are nonexistent.
Of course, Republicans’ actions show that “mental health” is just a verbal fig leaf. Despite their professed concern, the GOP still wants to cut Medicaid, the largest provider of mental health treatment. President Trump’s budget would slash community health spending, another key source. And at the state level things are no better: In the wake of the shooting, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said that more funding for mental health care is needed; what he didn’t mention is that during his seven years as governor, Florida’s per-capita spending on mental health has fallen to 50th in the nation.
Despite the discouraging poll numbers, supporters of reform should not lose heart. As mentioned above, important changes such as a 30-day waiting period retain broad support from the public; their success, if finally implemented, could help soften gun-control foes’ hardened opposition to broader reforms. At the same time, if Republicans finally walk the walk on support for mental health care, that will be an unalloyed good. Those who really want to protect children don’t have to choose between better gun laws and better mental health care. Both are smart policies, and both are worth fighting for.