The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NRA’s opposition to ‘crazy’ gun owners is full of holes

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel makes a point to NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch during a CNN town hall event in Sunrise, Fla., on Feb. 21. (Michael Laughlin/Reuters)

Dana Loesch was clear about her role in CNN’s town hall discussion Wednesday night. She was there speaking on behalf of the National Rifle Association. So this, then, is the view of that organization:

“I don’t believe that this insane monster” — Nikolas Cruz, the alleged gunman in the school massacre in Parkland, Fla., last week — “should have ever been able to obtain a firearm, ever,” she said. “I do not think that he should have gotten his hands on any kind of weapon. That’s No. 1. This individual was nuts, and I, nor the millions of people that I represent as a part of this organization, that I’m here speaking for, none of us support people who are crazy, who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others, getting their hands on a firearm.”

This was Loesch’s refrain: The mentally ill should not be allowed to have access to firearms. Legal restrictions should exist to prevent them from accessing weapons.

That argument, though, has flaws. Most immediately, it draws attention to the fact that determining mental illness is a nebulous and often subjective practice. Secondarily, even that restriction wouldn’t have prevented every mass shooting.

Mother Jones magazine has compiled a list of mass shootings since 1982, looking only at incidents in which three or more people were killed. Included in that analysis is consideration of whether the alleged perpetrators had demonstrated a history of mental illness. Of the 96 incidents on the list, 57 of the assailants exhibited some signs of instability or emotional distress by our assessment of Mother Jones’s numbers. Seventeen didn’t; for 22, it’s unclear.

We can break that down further, cross-referencing mental illness with the legality of the weapon (or weapons) used in the attack.

Fewer than half of the shooters exhibited mental issues before the attacks and are known to have bought guns legally. That’s the group Loesch is apparently targeting — meaning that the 51 other incidents are not necessarily addressed by the restriction she proposes.

In those 45 incidents, 371 people were killed. In the other incidents, 442 people were killed, including 120 people killed by assailants who had demonstrated no history of mental illness.

But instead of looking only at fatalities, let’s consider all injuries. When we do that, the other flaw in Loesch’s logic is exposed.

Suddenly, the largest group is the one in which the perpetrator showed unclear signs of mental illness but who obtained firearms legally. That’s because this group includes Stephen Paddock, the shooter in Las Vegas in October.

Was he mentally ill? Investigators think he had an undiagnosed mental illness, in part, ABC News reported, because “he had real difficulty interacting with people. He is described as standoffish, disconnected, a man who had difficulty establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships.”

How should someone like that be addressed? Without a diagnosis of mental illness, how would Paddock have been prevented from purchasing weapons? Do those characteristics even count?

After President Trump signed legislation last year rescinding an Obama-era rule barring gun sales to those receiving Social Security for mental impairments, it was noted that the existing rule blocked a constitutional right — gun ownership — based on a government evaluation of mental fitness. The NRA opposed the Obama rule and advocated for its repeal. But this is theoretically what Loesch wants to see: determinations of mental fitness that can be used to guide gun ownership. How else could a gun store owner know whether he was selling a firearm to someone whose mental fitness was compromised?

If the only standard is that the potential buyer must have been flagged as a risk to himself or to others, Paddock could still have bought the weapons he used to harm hundreds of people in October. Many people are standoffish, depressed or disconnected. Are they all mentally unfit in Loesch’s reading?

There’s a tendency after mass shootings to declare that shooters are necessarily mentally unstable, given the crimes that they perpetrated. By extending that outward, the argument is made that the mental illness should have been spotted and access to weapons prevented. But that’s overly neat and reliant on a definition of “mental illness” that simply doesn’t work as a preventive measure.

But Loesch and the NRA are making a rhetorical point in response to the massacre last week in Parkland, not proposing something that would actually end mass shootings. The third of shooting incidents tracked by Mother Jones that didn’t involve people with known emotional issues are just part of the cost of living in American society.