When a white guy shoots up a church or a country music festival, Donald Trump says the problem is the person, not the weapon.
“This isn’t a guns situation,” he said after the Sutherland Springs slaughter. “Mental health is your problem here.”
But he’s done nothing as president to make it harder for the mentally ill to get guns—quite the contrary.
“Seems to me, this is one thing we can all agree on, no guns for the mentally ill,” says DJ Jaffe, founder and executive director of Mental Illness Policy Organization. Jaffe was blogging for The Hill newspaper on the gun issue last year when the Trump campaign contacted him and asked for policy recommendations.
He was thrilled when Sam Clovis, Trump’s policy director, told him the campaign had adopted some of his suggestions in the party’s platform. One had to do with guns and the mentally ill, the other with helping parents get around privacy regulations to help adult children. “And then within 90 days (of winning the election), they make it easier for the mentally ill to get a gun,” Jaffe told The Daily Beast.
He is referring to an Obama-era gun regulation that would have prevented people unable to work and handle their own money from purchasing guns. With strong NRA backing, the GOP-controlled Senate voted to revoke the rule 57-43, with four red-state Democrats and Maine independent Angus King joining every Republican. Trump signed the measure into law in the Oval Office without any photos or fanfare—signaling his awareness that he had gone back on a campaign promise.
After two recent shootings, one in a church in rural Texas, the other along the Las Vegas strip, Trump repeated his convenient dodge that the massacres resulted from a mental health problem, not a gun problem.
The connection between mental illness and mass shootings is hotly debated within the mental health community, where advocates say linking the two unfairly stigmatizes people. The ACLU and several disability rights groups joined the NRA in its support for overturning the Obama-era rule.
Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, whose constituents include the Sandy Hook parents whose first-graders were gunned down, said during the debate on the rule change, “It is correct to state that there is no inherent connection between being mentally ill and being dangerous… But the risk here is not just that an individual is going to buy a gun and use it themselves. The risk is that someone who can’t literally deposit their own paycheck probably can’t, or likely can’t, responsibly own and protect a gun.”
Jaffe points out that any decision made under the rule, which Obama pushed through in his final days in office, could be appealed. A proud liberal and a Sanders voter—and someone who has experienced severe mental illness within his family—Jaffe is frustrated that fear over stigmatizing people is standing in the way of getting treatment for the severely mentally ill.
“The relationship between violence and untreated mental illness is clear,” he says, offering statistics compiled in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a government report. Eighteen percent of the U.S. population has minor mental health issues, while 4 percent have serious issues that affect their ability to function. That’s 10 million adults over 18—2 million of whom have received no treatment in the past year.
“Treating people with serious mental health issues clearly reduces violence,” he says. Often that violence is directed at family members. The most recent mass shooting in Texas, where a family dispute may have been the shooter’s motive, has raised questions about the link with domestic abuse.
Even so, mass gun violence statistically remains exceedingly rare, so will eliminating any one factor provide a meaningful reduction?
Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Duke University, has written extensively on the behavioral links to mass shootings. He thinks acts of past violence are a better predictor of someone predisposed to commit a mass killing. He said in an email that he thinks the president’s statements on mental illness and mass shootings were “misguided and a deflection to avoid talking about guns.”
Paul Appelbaum, professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law at Columbia University, said in an email that many of his colleagues welcome tying mass gun violence to mental issues as a way of getting more resources for underfunded mental health services. If Trump says mental illness is the problem, he should commit more money for mental health.
He hasn’t, Appelbaum says, because he and other political leaders talking about mental health after massacres aren’t really interested in improving mental health services. “They care a great deal about guns and are very interested in resisting meaningful regulation of access to guns. We see this playing out now as many of the people who talk most about gun violence as a mental health issue support eliminating the ACA, including its Medicaid expansion, which will disproportionately impact people with serious mental illnesses.”
Trump has his talking points down. When one of these mass shootings occur, he parrots the NRA, that it’s not guns, it’s mental health, but don’t be fooled, says Appelbaum. “Ironically, the assertion that mass violence is about mental health and not guns is all about guns, and not mental health.”