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Gun Violence and the American Mind

2016 Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush speaking at a Town Hall meeting in Henderson, Nevada. Source: David Becker/Reuters

“Reform the mental health care system.”

Time and time again, this has been the right-wing response to mass shootings. From three years ago, when 26 lives were lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School, to more recently, when ten people were killed at Umpqua Community College, right-wing politicians have consistently shifted blame onto the American system of mental illness treatment.

A few months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio stated, “We should work to reduce tragic acts of violence by addressing violence at its source, including untreated mental illness.” That stance hasn’t changed much among the Republicans, even after three years of consistent mass shootings across America. At a campaign stop in Iowa in early October this year, Jeb Bush claimed that gun violence is committed by “people who are sick [and] needed help,” arguing for a renewed and strengthened focus on mental illness treatment.

This consistent assertion by right-wing politicians is a curious one, especially when considering the fact that researchers have long disproved the assumption of correlation between mental illness and violence. In a 2013 piece written for the New York Times, Paul S. Appelbaum, the director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University, and Jeffrey A. Lieberman, the chairman of psychiatry at Columbia, states that “only about 4 percent of violence in the United States is attributable to mental illness.” However, as mass shootings have come to symbolize all gun crimes, right-wing politicians have framed an argument against gun control on the basis that all gun violence is committed by the mentally ill.

This argument is factually untrue. Rather, “people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime,” according to a 2001 population-based study. In terms of self-harbored violence, evidence shows that mentally ill people are far more likely to harm themselves than others. This means that what the American public has seen through Sandy Hook, Umpqua, and other high-profile cases are exceptions, not the norm.

The damaging effects lie in how this misunderstanding has come to shape the public’s perception of the mentally ill. “The notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions,” states Jonathan M. Metzl, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. The inaccurate portrayal of the mentally ill by right-wing politicians has perpetuated discrimination and stigma towards people who suffer from mental illnesses, fostering a cultural atmosphere in which a medical diagnosis has come to carry a stronger indicator of violence than purchasing a weapon.

Nevertheless, all 2016 Republican presidential candidates continue to defend nearly identical views on the subject, if not through more blunt and insensitive rhetoric than before. After a man shot two journalists on television in August, Donald Trump told CNN: “This isn’t a gun problem, this is a mental problem.” After the Umpqua shooting, Ben Carson told Hugh Hewitt: “Obviously there are going to be those calling for gun control but that happens every time we have one of these incidents. Obviously that’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is the mentality of these people.”

However, the lack of follow-through legislations by Republican politicians have left gaping holes in the matters of improving mental health treatment as well as stemming gun violence. While consistently vetoing gun control proposals, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee have never drafted a single piece of legislation to expand or improve mental health care services. The talk of mental health care reform has always been a brief stint, prolonged just long enough after a mass shooting to divert the public’s attention from the issue of gun control.

After every mass shooting, Congress has gotten lost in political arguments and deadlock, failing to materialize a single piece of legislative gun reform. The Republicans’ defensive rhetoric, the “stuff happens” attitude, and the pointing of fingers, combined with the Democrats’ reluctance to actively pursue a hardline stance on gun control, has caused the American government to be a mere bystander to three consistent years of horrific gun violence. In the end, the right-wing politicians’ misled persistence has only been detrimental to public policy, stagnating progress in all possible directions.

America’s “gun problem” is perpetual and cyclic. Mass shootings have become a regular part of American news, an all-too familiar routine of mourning, anger, and subsequent political arguments that have drawn out indefinitely and changed nothing. Loss of a loved one has no external remedies; however, what politicians and the American public can do is engage in serious and concrete action to help prevent another massacre. If right-wing politicians continue to ignore the facts and refuse to discuss an action plan, they will do a serious disservice to those who have lost their loved ones in the mass gun violence that has plagued the United States for years.