In the wake of almost every mass shooting — a term which, by now, has become so familiar as to feel almost disconnected from the vicious slaughter of random people in ordinary places — the National Rifle Association and its fellow travelers make the same point: There are many more guns in circulation in the United States than murders, so the problem isn’t guns, per se, but the people who turn them on innocents. The problem, they say, is mental health.
“Since 1966, the National Rifle Association has urged the federal government to address the problem of mental illness and violence,” the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action said in 2013.“The NRA will support any reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans.” Yet, true to form, the same article also says, “The danger of overbroad mental health disqualifiers is already clear to tens of thousands of veterans,” which is of particular interest in relation to this week’s shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Indeed, the Thousand Oaks shooting illuminates some of the most salient problems with the NRA’s position that reducing mental illness, not guns, is the solution to the United States’ nightmarish mass shooting problem.
First, the Thousand Oaks shooter — who doesn’t deserve to be named or go down in infamy, but to be forgotten as an actor and recognized only as a symptom of a problem — had been interviewed and cleared by a mental health specialist in April. But mental health isn’t a static condition. People can and do experience mental health problems, recover, move on — and relapse, without any detectable pattern. A person on the verge of a serious mental health crisis today could be well again very soon, and vice versa, meaning that targeted interventions — such as check-ups, which can result in the confiscation of a person’s weapons, or refusing firearm sales only to people with prior involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations — will likely fail to prevent mass killings.
For this reason, the argument that mental health is the root cause of mass shootings — which doesn’t appear to be borne out by studies, not that the NRA cares about studies ; but to briefly put aside reality and take the claim for granted — doesn’t actually militate against reducing guns in circulation. On the contrary, it seems to support that very course. If mental illness is something that can arise or be exacerbated at any time, without much notice, then reducing the number of guns in circulation would be an effective way to limit opportunities for those crises to become quickly and extremely lethal.
Of course, NRA leaders aren’t going to follow the logic where it goes. They’re not even going to follow the group’s own reasoning from point A to point B — say, from statements of concern about mental illness to efforts to do something about it. If the NRA were serious about mental health in the United States, it could publicly proclaim support for politicians who seek to expand health-care coverage for all Americans, and especially to those who support single-payer health care, which would cover mental health care and substance abuse treatment . And why not? The NRA thrives on a faux-populist platform, in which it attempts to pit average Americans in the heartland against snobby, rich coastal elites. Want to stick it to the man? Tax him and pay for universal health care.
But the NRA does not want to stick it to the man, or look out for everyday Americans, or solve our country’s mental health-care crisis. It wants to keep guns on store shelves and keep the market for them wide and expansive, because gun and gun accoutrements manufacturers and retailers give them money and buy their advertising space. Everyone who comes between them and those checks — be they patrons hanging out at a nightclub, people suffering from mental illness, or citizens genuinely trying to make sense of a complex and disturbing phenomenon — is just another problem.