It doesn’t matter how many shots are fired and how many bodies pile up—particularly in those attention-grabbing mass shootings—the cry goes out, crafted by the NRA, that it is something other than guns and ammunition that needs to be addressed. The most recent and prevalent pro-gun meme is that it’s the mental health system that needs to be fixed, while guns are just great. In fact, guns are so great that everybody should have them all of the time, except for criminals and those people with a severe mental illness. But if any criminals or people with mental illness try to shoot any of us good people, then we can all pull out our guns and shoot them back, and definitely shoot them better, harder, faster, and, just for good measure, deader.
Prior to the pro-gun, blame-the-mental-health-system meme, it was the, “We don’t need new laws, we just need to enforce the existing laws” meme. Of course, since the NRA lobbied to make sure that the existing laws wouldn’t be enforced, and, in fact lobbied to have laws enacted that made it illegal to enforce the earlier existing laws, they had to come up with a different cheer for team shoot-em-up. So, hence: guns good; mental health system bad.
There’s this other, less clearly- and less frequently- articulated position underlying the broken-mental-health-system argument, that people working with the mentally ill are incompetent, first of all, for allowing the system to fall into disarray, and second of all, for not being clairvoyant enough to determine which of the people they encounter who express some form of homicidal ideation are just talking nonsense and which really are stockpiling weapons or have access to weapons their family members stockpiled, so that said mental health professionals can then direct law enforcement to stop the future crimes. Okay, in fairness, there are ways to assess for danger—not that the NRA didn’t lobby to try to prevent anybody in the medical and mental health fields from even asking people anything as simple as whether they have access to guns.
But fortunately, the NRA has finally stepped up and has been instrumental in working to address real-life situations and offer up functional ideas for systemic changes, like, “You guys need to fix the mental health system so that people with mental illness stop shooting people, okay?” Except there’s that whole thing about how people with mental illness who actually commit violent crimes (a very tiny portion of them) are not generally compliant with treatment if they’re even in treatment to begin with. So not only do mental health practitioners have to accurately determine which of their clients might commit violence and make sure those clients are stopped from doing so, but they also have to ferret out all of the potentially violent people with mental illness, even if they have never even met them.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that the argument about fixing the mental health system is a nonsensical argument for a WHOLE lot of reasons…most notably that it’s an argument designed for inaction as far as gun laws go, while setting up a bogeyman that can spring out and yell ‘boo!’ anytime there’s a high-profile shooting. For instance, if somebody commits atrocities, such as shooting up a theater or a school, then we can all say, “Wow, this guy was obviously disturbed. Why wasn’t he getting any help?” Or if said shooter was in treatment, we can say, “How come more wasn’t done to make sure he wouldn’t hurt anybody?” Or if there are no clear indications that a shooter was, for example, psychotic or in treatment, we can always fall back on the idea of undiagnosed mental illness. The broken-mental-health-system argument is also convenient for all those 19,000-ish annual suicides by gun.
The argument to fix the mental health system is also nonsensical because it essentially allows the problem of gun violence to go on forever. That is, no set of laws is ever going to solve the problem of murder 100%, but when the argument is that guns aren’t problematic, but the mental health care system is, then as long as there are shootings, we can keep hemming and hawing, failing to enact simple measures like universal background checks, or tracking of Internet-based weapons and ammunition sales, or making certain classes of weapons flat-out illegal.
In addition, the broken mental health system argument allows gun manufacturers to rack up more gun sales. After all, what are a few dead kids if you can rake in some extra dough by letting 24-hour news networks scare everybody into thinking they need to arm themselves against a bunch of crazy people who are going to shoot their kids? (or invade their homes, or shoot them in a theater, a mall, a church…) Just check out how gun sales spike after high-profile shootings, combined with talking heads appearing on news shows to say stupid things about how the crimes would have been avoided if only everybody on scene had been armed. Check out the secondary spike in sales when the same talking heads suggest that gun laws are going to suddenly become so restrictive that nobody is going to be able to buy a gun anymore.
On top of that, the majority of the people who parrot the broken-mental-health-system meme have no idea how the mental health system actually works, or how it interacts with law enforcement, hospitals, and the court system, or what could actually be done to “fix” it. Nor do most of them care, since it conveniently props up their view of things, without them having to actually learn or understand anything. They’re super-familiar with arguments about why killers are going to kill just as many people whether they have clips with 8, 27, 92, or 412 rounds; why it doesn’t make a difference if a person has access to a pop gun, a hunting rifle, an AK-47, or a BFG-9000; and why any gun control measure at all is useless because criminals are going to get guns anyway, and then only law-abiding citizens will be left unarmed.
Don’t bother trying to point out that all kinds of laws exist that, just as the concept of law implies, are followed by law-abiding citizens, and violated by criminals, and that what makes a person a criminal is that the person violates a law. After all, the no-gun-control stance involves absolutist/absurdist arguments where ANY restrictions on guns and ammunition mean all law-abiding citizens lose ALL access to their guns and ammo, and criminals suddenly have unfettered access to all the weapons they could ever want so that they can create the maximum amount of mayhem. It’s an argument that requires a good dose of the paranoia that persons with mental illness who carry out violent crimes sometimes exhibit.
But the logical extension of the no-gun-control kind of argument is that we could get rid of “gun crimes” and “gun criminals” completely if we could just get rid of all laws related to guns, because then there would be no gun laws to violate. Then we only have to enforce the existing laws against murder. Yup, what’s really broken is the anti-murder system in this country. And if we all had more guns, we could solve that, too.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would absolutely love it if we, as a nation, were going to get serious about “fixing” the mental health system (makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it—kind of like fixing a leaky faucet or fixing your basset hound). But getting that fix all taken care of isn’t happening anytime soon, since it takes a whole lot of money, a whole lot of changes to the legal system, enough well-trained mental health professionals working in tandem with law enforcement and other community resources, a whole lot more places to keep persons with severe mental illness while they get treatment, and a whole lot of money. Oh, I guess I touched on that money one already.
Of course, a big block to getting the mental health system fixed is that a lot of the same people screaming at everybody about prying beloved guns from cold dead hands and fixing the mental health system are the same ones screaming to slash taxes and remove all government funding from everything everywhere. A lot of them are the same ones who worship former President Ronald Reagan, who loved the idea of shutting down psychiatric facilities in favor of “privatizing” the oversight of people with severe mental illness, who need a lot more than a place to stay and a minimum-wage worker to watch over them.
And even with that “privatization” of things like residential homes and intensive outpatient programs, guess who is paying for mental health care for the people with the most severe mental illnesses. Go on, guess. If you said “the government,” then you’re right. And if it’s a puzzle to you why people with chronic, severe mental illness aren’t getting good jobs with great insurance plans to pay for all the medications, therapy, and hospitalizations they require, well, then I obviously can’t make you understand how we’re ever going to “fix” the mental health system.
So, how do you reconcile de-funding everything in the government, including the mental health system—particularly those long-term inpatient facilities where the people with the most severe mental illnesses stay (or, rather, used to stay)—with the idea that we’re going to fix the mental health system to keep all the most dangerous people with mental illnesses off the street so that we don’t have to have any new gun control laws? Well, the real answer is that you don’t, because it’s a nonsensical argument in the first place.
Now, happily—well maybe not happily, since it took multiple mass shootings and the NRA clamoring to prevent any gun control laws from being enacted while simultaneously screaming about the broken mental health system—mental health funding is kinda-sorta being restored to the very limited levels that existed back when G.W. Bush was president. Unfortunately, those levels are still not anywhere close to the level—comparatively speaking—that such funding was at when dear, old Ronald Reagan became President. So, thanks NRA—you are advocating for restoring all 40,000-ish psychiatric ward long-term “beds” for those with chronic, severe mental illness that went away back when Ronald Reagan was in office, right?
Beyond the complete insincerity behind the NRA’s argument that the mental health system needs to be fixed, the NRA is actively doing a disservice to the people of the United States—a disservice that actually serves the NRA well by scaring up gun sales. By creating a bogeyman out of people with mental illness, the NRA promotes the idea that people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are inherently dangerous, unhinged, and likely to kill us all. Never mind that the mental health system deals with a wide array of concerns, from situational depression to anxiety disorders, PTSD to schizophrenia, and that the majority of those people are never going to commit a violent crime. By squawking that gun violence is a problem of the mental health system, as opposed to a problem with multiple facets, most notably of ensuring easy access to guns, while provoking fear of one’s fellow citizens, the NRA sets the country on yet another course to doing nothing about gun violence, while spreading ignorance about what mental illness is or what it means. The NRA provokes more fear of a big portion of the population, perpetuates a culture where people will avoid seeking help for mental health issues for fear of becoming part of that bogeyman group, and provides an excuse for inaction that will see no end. After all, as long as there are shootings by people who can be labeled as having a mental health issue–bam–the mental health system failed. It’s got nothin’ to do with the guns themselves.
If you want to consider whether the NRA has anybody’s best interest at heart, consider that following the Newtown school shootings, more than 85% of the American people supported instituting ‘universal background checks,’ but the NRA managed to ensure no action would be taken through the power of the almighty dollar. The NRA can threaten to withhold money from political campaigns, or worse, to dump massive amounts of money into campaigns to take out politicians who do anything they don’t like.
The NRA, aka the gun manufacturer’s lobby, knows that an occasional scare is good for business—and having a bogeyman is the best thing possible—especially when that bogeyman is easily stigmatized, poorly understood, and getting the problem of the bogeyman “fixed” could take forever. The whole fix-the-mental-health-system argument put forth by the NRA is nonsensical because it posits that it is easier to “fix” a complex system that attempts to address the needs of people with a broad range of conditions that are not set, uniform, or easily managed than it is to restrict access to the things that people—many who avoid contact with the mental health system prior to committing heinous acts—use to kill people.