The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s learned helplessness on guns

We’ve tried almost nothing, and we’re all out of ideas

Shawnda Atkins, left, is consoled by Tara Williams on Sunday outside an the outlet mall in Allen, Tex., where a gunman killed eight people. (Jeffrey McWhorter for The Washington Post)
7 min

When Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly departed that channel in 2017, she attributed the move to the emergence of the Donald Trump era in the cable news industry. She stepped away from Fox as it was leaning into Trump-style politics and took a gig hosting a morning show on NBC. But that was short-lived; after Kelly made comments defending blackface, the show was canceled.

Kelly now hosts a podcast, one that skews solidly right. Perhaps given the marketing opportunities offered, she’s increasingly visible in the culture wars, criticizing the left and its perceived allies. She recently wore a red, Trump-style baseball cap with an anti-trans motto, for example.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

In the wake of the mass shooting in Allen, Tex., on Saturday that killed eight people, Kelly offered a tidy distillation of the right’s view of such events — though one that perhaps betrays her relative inexperience leaning into such fights.

“Serious q for gun control advocates: you’ve failed to effect change. Pls face it. You can’t do it, thx to the 2A,” Kelly wrote on Twitter. “We’re all well aware you don’t like that fact, but fact it is.”

So, she wondered, couldn’t America “possibly talk OTHER SOLUTIONS?”

She had some suggestions: “Mental health interventions (smthg real, not the BS we now do), greater willingness to lock ppl up (w/protocols in place for civil libs) who are deemed to be threats, fortification of soft targets, coordination of media response to not lionize shooters, etc.”

It was a useful response, for a few reasons.

The first is the idea that because Republicans flatly oppose new laws limiting gun ownership, the onus is on non-Republicans to embrace some alternative responses.

The second is that Kelly appears not to understand that her side’s position isn’t alternatives to new gun laws but, in practice, virtual inaction.

To the first point, it’s well established that most Americans think that gun laws should be tightened. Polling from Kelly’s former employer, Fox News, shows that majorities of Americans support a range of laws limiting ownership, from raising the age at which you can own a gun to expanding background checks. In almost every case, that includes a heavy majority of Republicans. The only proposal that doesn’t get majority support is encouraging more people to own guns to defend against attacks — something that might be considered part of Kelly’s “fortification of soft targets” idea.

New polling in Texas itself shows support for new restrictions on guns. A University of Texas-Texas Politics Project poll released last week shows that about three-quarters of Texans at least somewhat support laws allowing the government to mandate the surrender of weapons by those deemed to be a risk — “red flag” laws. Three-quarters also express support for increasing the minimum age of gun ownership.

So why doesn’t Texas pass such a law? That’s in large part because its legislature is still controlled by Republican majorities. Among Republicans, support for such laws is lower, and almost no one sees addressing gun safety as a top priority for the state legislature.

That’s why, despite that national support for new gun laws, none are passed. Republican voters support legislation in the abstract, but specific bills are often picked apart in isolation. What’s more, Republican voters generally aren’t choosing candidates based on their support for new gun laws; culture war issues are a much more potent driver of votes and yield legislators who are uninterested in supporting measures to limit gun ownership.

Contrast Kelly’s inaccurate description of the situation — nothing can be done because of the Second Amendment, as though more-robust limits on guns have never existed — with the phrasing of Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.).

“It’s a horrible, horrible situation, and we’re not going to fix it,” he said to reporters after a mass shooting at a school in his state last month. Asked if Congress had a role to play, he replied: “I don’t see any real role that we could do other than mess things up, honestly. … I don’t think you’re going to stop the gun violence.” Instead, he argued, the country needed to turn to religion.

At best, this is learned helplessness, a fatalism that emerges after a deluge of negative events and that triggers a sense that there’s nothing that can be done.

At worst, it’s indifference.

Kelly, of course, went on to offer proposed responses that, she argued, weren’t limited by her imaginary blanket ban on limits to gun ownership. She began with a focus on mental health, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) also highlighted in his response to the shooting in Allen.

“People want a quick solution,” Abbott said in an interview this weekend. “The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

As The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell wrote in an op-ed last year, Abbott has said this before. In 2018, he blamed a shooting on mental health — and then actually signed into law modest efforts to improve mental health care. But he’s done little else. By his own admission, he hasn’t stemmed mass shootings despite drawing attention to mental health five years ago, certainly a period that counts as “longer term.”

Nor has his party. Last year, U.S. House members considered legislation implementing a mechanism to expand red-flag laws, something adjoining Kelly’s call to “lock up” dangerous people. Two hundred and one Republicans opposed it. Another bill, eventually signed by President Biden, expanded mental health services specifically with an eye toward gun violence. It included other provisions as well, but 190 Republicans voted against it.

That’s even assuming that addressing mental health is a viable response. It’s considered something of a truism that mass shootings and mental health issues are linked; after all, what mentally healthy person would commit mass murder? But, as Amy Barnhorst, a psychiatrist and associate director for the California Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California at Davis, said in an interview in February, simply adding more funding to mental health programs probably wouldn’t have the desired effect.

“Mass shootings have become in our country not a means to an end; they are an end,” she said. “There’s so many ways to get to that end: misogyny, racism, white supremacy, antisemitism, sometimes rage, sometimes religious extremism.”

It is unquestionably true that America is so saturated with guns that limiting access for bad actors is more challenging than simply increasing the age of purchase to 21. But there’s been little effort to introduce such limits, particularly in the post-assault-weapons-ban era, when the AR-15 has joined the issue of gun control in general as an object of partisan polarization.

Kelly seems to think that there are two sides to the debate over how to address mass shootings, with one side advocating for restrictions on gun ownership and the other side advocating for other measures. In reality, the other side’s position is simply “opposition to restrictions.” Calls for things like addressing mental health are less recommendations than they are rhetorical rejoinders, ways of countering calls for new limits that are both nebulous and complex. In the case of pointing to mental health or lapsed religiosity, there’s an added benefit: pinning blame solely on the actor and not the mechanism of his actions.

The shooter in Allen appears to have gotten out of his car and begun to open fire, killing a number of people outside the mall. If someone has a legislative solution that could sufficiently “harden” that scenario, it would certainly be interesting to hear a debate over it in the Texas legislature or in Congress.