When two mass murderers struck in early August, taking at least 31 lives, many in the mainstream media blamed guns and your freedom for the carnage, not “mentally ill monsters,” as President Donald J. Trump called them.
The notion that mental illness shouldn’t even be discussed as part of a remedy has been pushed by people such as former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.). When he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, Coelho helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act. In an opinion piece in The Hill in August, Coelho wrote, “Whether based on ignorance, discrimination or hate, the belief that ending gun violence can occur by targeting people with mental illness is wrong and a counterproductive red herring.”
This denial was expressed in GQ, Time, NBC and many other mainstream news outlets. Many even accused gun-rights groups and proponents of trying to dishonestly change the direction of the discussion away from guns. Later, in his opinion piece, Coelho also pivoted to his real objective: “The emphasis on mental health is merely a deflection from the need to talk about guns.”
This is a political diversion from Coelho, and so many others in the media, as there are real things that can be done to better find and treat the few people out there with mental-health issues who might become violent.
Mental health is clearly a part of the problem
If we compare today to the mid-1950s, we find there is a huge shortage of available services for those with serious psychiatric conditions. In 1955, there were 337 beds available in public mental-health facilities per 100,000 people in the United States. In 2016, that number plummeted to fewer than 12 beds per 100,000 people, according to various studies. While most individuals suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous, a disproportionate number of mass killers have had severe mental illnesses. Providing more funding for psychiatric facilities so they can offer more beds and services is one way to target this problem.
Politicians like Coelho, however, would rather blame guns because this allows them to push their preferred legislative goal: gun control.
Some mental-health professionals have been giving anti-Second Amendment politicians cover to push their political goals.
“Blaming mental illness for the gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available,” said Arthur C. Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association. “Americans own nearly half of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns in the world. Access to this final, fatal tool means more deaths that occur more quickly whether in a mass shooting or in someone’s own home.”
Gun-control advocates were also quick to point to a study by researchers in behavioral health at the University of Texas Medical Branch, published earlier this year, that concluded: “Counter to public beliefs, the majority of mental-health symptoms examined were not related to gun violence. Instead, access to firearms was the primary culprit.” These researchers said there is “minimal evidence” to establish a firm link between mass murderers and mental illnesses.
According to research by Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, nearly 60% of the public mass shootings that took place in the United States between 1900 and 2017 were carried out by people with a diagnosed mental disorder or serious signs of mental illness prior to the attack. This percentage is consistent with other sources that track mental-health problems among perpetrators of mass killings.
For reasons such as these, many mental-health professionals do see this is as an area that needs more attention.
“Anyone willing to get a gun so they can murder random people is obviously mentally ill. It could be due to drug use and addiction or many mental illnesses, like depression or an anti-social personality disorder,” said Kati Morton, a California-based family and behavior therapist. “Mental illness does play a role, and that’s why improving our mental-care system could help us spot warning signs much earlier.”
It’s very difficult to predict violence
“Violence prediction is no better than 50/50 with even the most-seasoned experts because there is little to no predictability. When you add in medication and the effects that these can cause, there are even more variables that make it more difficult to predict,” said Dr. Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, attorney and FBI scholar. “There is next to no research on the subject, only professional opinions from some who have seen these changes in clients.”
Can killers be stopped before they act?
Good arguments can be made that many people have been prevented from doing themselves or others harm. Still, there is no real way to know what might have happened if action wasn’t taken.
To stop potential killers before they act, many in the firearms industry have pushed for states to ensure that appropriate disqualifying mental-health records are reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and to improve the accuracy of the records entered.
The database—on top of prohibiting fugitives, drug addicts, serious criminals and dishonorably discharged veterans from obtaining firearms—is intended to block those “adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution” from gun ownership. (This prohibition does not include those who voluntarily commit themselves for psychiatric help.)
“The relevant question is often not whether there are mechanisms in place to prevent people suffering from a serious mental illness who pose a danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms,” said John Malcolm and Amy Swearer in a Heritage Foundation Civil Society report earlier this year that dealt with mental illness and guns. “But rather, whether those mechanisms are being adequately utilized by the relevant authorities.”
The NICS is operated by the FBI and relies on states to voluntarily submit applicable data; however, some states have had difficulty collecting and submitting the appropriate records to the NICS.
As part of its “Fix NICS” campaign, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) has been lobbying for more than six years to get states to give more records to NICS.
“FBI NICS databases are incomplete because many states have not provided all records that establish someone is prohibited, especially including mental-health adjudications and involuntary commitments orders,” noted the NSSF. “A background check is only as good as the records in its database.”
The NSSF touted something of a victory last year after President Donald J. Trump signed into law a bill that included the Fix NICS Act. This legislation requires the U.S. Secretary of Defense to deliver reports to Congress on NICS submissions. It also instructs the u.s. Department of Justice to coordinate with other agencies to be certain they provide relevant information in a timely manner.
Other legislative fixes are also being discussed.
“Congress might start by repealing the Johnson administration’s so-called ‘IMD (Institutions for Mental Disease) exclusion’ in the Medicaid statutes, which prevents individuals from using Medicaid funds at a facility with more than 16 psychiatric beds,” said John Hirschauer, a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. “The measure was included to forward the vision of Johnson’s late predecessor, John F. Kennedy, whose final legislative act was the signing of the Community Mental Health Act (CMHA) of 1963. The CHMA usurped state control of mental-illness treatment and anointed the federal government architect of an entirely new method of care.”
Meanwhile, in addition to citing possible reforms to the Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act, the push for more accurate data has been stymied to some extent by the mental-health industry over worries that providing these records enhances stigmas surrounding mental illness.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness argues that creating new federal or state gun laws based on mental illness “could have the effect of creating more barriers to people being willing to seek treatment and help when they need it most.”
“In some cases, untreated mental illness can exacerbate antisocial personality traits, contribute to delusional thinking and fuel illogical decision-making, all of which play a role in the means by which dangerous people choose to harm others,” said Wendy Patrick, a prosecutor, behavioral expert and author of Red Flags. “On the other hand, there are scores of mentally ill people who would never harm a fly.”
It certainly would be counterproductive to stigmatize those seeking mental-health treatment by threatening to take away their Second Amendment rights. This, of course, is something the Obama administration tried to do.
An Obama-era Social Security Administration rule would have resulted in tens of thousands of law-abiding beneficiaries losing their Second Amendment rights each year simply because they sought help administering their finances.
This rule was issued in the last months of Obama’s presidency. It targeted those receiving disability insurance or Supplementary Security Income and who had a “representative payee” to help them manage their benefits. Under Obama, the agency, for the first time in its history, sought to portray these individuals as “mental defectives” who were prohibited from acquiring or possessing firearms under federal law. This is why President Trump repealed this Obama-era rule.
Law enforcement is in a quandary
Currently, a federal law (18 USC, Sec. 922) deems it illegal “for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.”
“Someone has to pull the trigger,” Patrick said. “Obviously, guns don’t kill, people do, but the people who kill are those who should not have guns. So let us examine what laws we have and ensure they are being enforced.”
Law enforcement is being compelled to take a larger role in rooting out the telltale signs of a murderer before they can do harm. This is especially occurring in social media. But how can a law-enforcement official distinguish a bonafide threat from an extreme but empty statement?
“This is a very complex issue and there is no easy solution, otherwise we would have implemented the solutions a long time ago.”
“There are millions of social-media postings daily and some are simply disturbing; however, that does not mean the person will plan and engage in criminal activity,” said Dr. Alex del Carmen, a criminology expert at Tarleton State University. “The challenge for law enforcement is to go through billions of data bits daily and interpret them according to a predictive formula that may show who will commit a criminal or violent act.”
But even so, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech until speech crosses a line into incitement. Where that gray line is drawn remains subject to heated debate.
Whether or not to strip individuals of their Second Amendment rights, temporarily or otherwise, also has many skeptics reasonably concerned about due-process protections and how slippery the slope could become. “Pre-crime” rulings have long been used in dystopian fiction and Hollywood science-fiction thrillers because the idea is scary, possibly authoritarian and undeniably capricious.
“This is a very complex issue and there is no easy solution, otherwise we would have implemented the solutions a long time ago,” said Robert Almonte, a retired 31-year law-enforcement officer and former El Paso-based police officer. “But I believe the solution begins at home. Many people have a disconnect from society, much of it caused by the internet, social media and video games. We are losing empathy for one another. Our children are growing up without the basic social skills to even carry a conversation with someone face to face.”
The bigger cultural and mental-health questions, however, are too often downplayed or even ruled out of the discussion. This is often being done by activists who want the focus to be solely on their political goals: passing more gun-control restrictions on the American people.
Treating guns, or gun owners in general, as if they are the problem takes the focus off the people—criminals and the few mentally ill individuals out there who might do themselves or others harm.
The emphasis on gun control is also unnecessarily dividing America. Alienating gun owners by defining them as the problem makes it harder to bring everyone together to find the few possible murderers before they act.