Brett Graham: The easy way out of gun control

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 - 8:06pm

Americans have a lot of practice nowadays with mass shootings. On television, journalists launch into hours of investigative coverage for a few days following a shooting, introducing a new graphic for each and every development, regardless of its relevancy. Moments of silence at large sporting events seem to happen with increasing frequency. Social media quickly fills up with prayers for the family of the victims, copied, pasted and shared by thousands.

And then we move on, ready for the next tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, one group that did not exactly have its act together in response to the shootings in San Bernardino last Wednesday was the usually dysfunctional leadership of the Republican Party. Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina called for better enforcement of “the laws that we have” and criticized President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for politicizing the issue. In an effort to combine the inappropriate with the asinine, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz unveiled the Second Amendment Coalition at an Iowa gun range two days after the shooting. 

The only commonality between the positions of GOP politicians was the categorical agreement that guns are not the problem, but instead mental illness is. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R–Wis.) took to “CBS This Morning” to explain that “people with mental illness are getting guns and committing these mass shootings,” and to announce that Congress is already drafting legislation dealing with the root cause of these shootings: mental health.

With 14 dead and 21 injured, with families still grieving, with an FBI investigation into whether the shooting was linked to terrorism ongoing, the GOP’s decision to go on the offensive by linking mental illness to mass shootings is insensitive, uninformed and irresponsible. For starters, the notion that tragedies like the one in San Bernardino are direct results of mental illness is tenuous at best. A 2014 study from the American Psychological Association showed that of crimes committed by people with serious mental disorders, just 7.5 percent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness. Dylann Roof was not mentally ill in Charleston, nor was Robert Lewis Dear when he took the lives of three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado.

Dr. Liza Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical Center, has attempted to debunk these myths in her book released last month, “Gun Violence and Mental Illness.”

“Most people with serious mental illness are not violent,” Gold wrote, and “most violent individuals do not have serious mental illness and evidence indicates that individuals with serious mental illness who kill strangers with a gun is one of the rarest types of gun violence in the United States.”

A threat assessment team that has been working in Salem, Ore., for the past 15 years notes that mental illness is often not to blame for violence. “It’s easy to want to say they're mentally ill, they’re different from us,” said Allan Rainwater, a mental health investigator for Marion Country, “and quite often, they may not be.” 

Americans saw this after Sandy Hook, and with the 1,044 mass shootings (yes, 1,044) since then. Journalists attempted to explain the shooter’s behavior, guessing that he was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. But the simple fact of the matter is that there’s no real empirical evidence that suggests mass shootings stem directly from the mentally ill. This isn’t to say that such a connection never exists, simply that Speaker Ryan introducing this legislation as a solution to the problem is misguided and furthers an unfounded narrative among U.S. citizens.

There’s no evidence that the shooters in San Bernardino were mentally ill. Yet the knee-jerk reaction of GOP politicians continues to point to psychological disorders. It seems the old adage of gun owners in the United States has been updated to “guns don’t kill people, crazy people kill people.”

As British comedian Eddie Izzard once said, though, I think the gun helps. 

Last Wednesday’s tragedy marks the 355th mass shooting of the year. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik bought assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns, loaded them, dropped their baby off their with grandma, drove to a holiday party and, until they pulled the trigger, had yet to commit a crime. More than 80 percent of guns used in mass shootings in the United States are purchased legally. That’s something Americans have to confront. And the conversation on mental health is a distraction.

Even if mental health was found to be a cause of mass shootings, what then would be the end goal? Would it be our goal to eradicate mental illness? At the rate of civilian deaths in the United States today, I sincerely doubt we can afford to wait for the years of institutional reforms and mental health counseling that might not even solve the problem.

Evidence shows that the No. 1 Republican response to mass shootings is somewhere between doubtful and blatantly ignorant. Their goal is to deny any notion that there is a gun problem in the United States, instead peddling the idea that somehow Americans are more prone to mental illness and violence. This year, 462 people have been killed in mass shootings, with 1,314 injuries across 47 states.

Decide for yourself.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.