Within a day of the massacre of men, women, and children in a Texas church, President Donald Trump made three claims. First, he maintained it wasn’t a guns problem. Second, he said the shooter was stopped by someone else with a gun. Third, he blamed mental illness. Together the statements made one thing very clear: There is no amount of violence or sympathetic victims that will ever shame today’s Republican Party to take action on guns.
The details are horrific. The details are always horrific. The shooter, a white male with a history of domestic violence, went in to First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, armed with an AR-15 style rifle. He opened fire. Victims included the 14-year-old daughter of the pastor, a 72-year-old, numerous young children, and a pregnant woman. One family hid in a bathroom, shots penetrating the walls. An 8-year-old ducked beneath a pew as his brother and two sisters were shot. After the killer had murdered 26 people, injured 20 more, and spread trauma throughout his community, he left the church. There he encountered at least one armed civilian, dropped his rifle, fled in his car, crashed, and seems to have shot himself in the head. A “good guy with a gun” did not stop the incident. The broken bodies lying in the church and the trauma of the survivors demonstrate clearly that the incident was not halted. Trump, unsurprisingly, claimed that “fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction.”
Trump’s comments on mental health are typical of Republican response to violence. He characterized the killer as a “very deranged individual” who has a “mental health problem at the highest level.” This was also his and Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) response after the Las Vegas shooting. Republicans (and some Democrats) have been making comments like this for decades. On Monday in Japan, though, Trump added, “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country—as do other countries—but this isn’t a guns situation.”
That middle clause, “as do other countries,” is quite the tell. Trump regularly runs his mouth freely, revealing the subtext that lies beneath the usual GOP talking points. Trump isn’t wrong. Many countries have not adequately met the mental-health needs of its population. But linking acts of violence to people with mental health is gross stigmatization that belies the data. People with mental illness are vastly more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.