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.
Still, let’s take Trump at his word here and agree that around the world other countries also have people with unmet mental-health needs. And yet among 171 nations of the world, the United States is the clear leader in mass shootings. It’s the guns. Of course it’s the guns.
Stigma is dangerous. When we spread the lie that mental illness leads to perpetrating mass murder, we push people to closet their conditions. Mental health, like all forms of health, requires maintenance and support. Secrecy just leads to vulnerability and self-harm. Even worse, the GOP, led by now-disgraced Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA), has frequently used high-profile incidents of violence to call for forced medication and easing the requirements for involuntary commitment. In other words, the GOP is more than willing to strip away liberties from people with disabilities in order to avoid talking about guns.
Just as we were processing the carnage in Texas, the news broke that Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo was crediting Stephen Paddock’s mass murder in Las Vegas on the killer’s becoming depressed after losing money. When white men kill, law enforcement, media, and elected officials seek out explanatory mental-health-based narratives to avoid talking about guns. Notice that the recent violence in New York generated no such talk, as the president and his lackeys quickly launched into anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant diatribes. This kind of prejudicial discourse is typical when people of color commit violence.
The emphasis on mental health is merely a craven deflection from the need to talk about guns. Our mental-health system needs a lot of help, though not to stop gun violence (only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts involve people with psychiatric disabilities, who otherwise make up about 18 percent of the population). The GOP spent the summer trying to defund community and medical-health supports in their attacks on health care.
Trump’s little slip, “as do other countries,” makes his agenda transparent. The problem is guns; Republicans know it; and they’re not going to do anything about it. The GOP has decided that the murder of children in church is a reasonable price to pay for the continued support of billionaire gun merchants and the NRA.
To stop, or even slightly slow the violence, we are going to have to elect different politicians.