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Talking about mental health after mass shootings is a cop-out

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 10/6/2017 Fareed Zakaria
People attend a vigil after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images People attend a vigil after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

“He was a sick man, a demented man,” said President Trump, trying to explain the latest mass shooting in the United States. We hear this view expressed routinely, after every new incident. But it is a dodge, a distortion of the facts and a cop-out as to the necessary response.

There is no evidence that the Las Vegas shooter was insane. (I prefer not to use his name and give him publicity, even posthumously.) He did not have a history of mental illness that we know of, nor had he been reported for behavior that would suggest any such condition. He was clearly an evil man, or at least a man who did something truly evil. But evil is not crazy. If we define the attempt to take an innocent human being’s life as madness, then every murderer is mad. If not, we should recognize that it is a meaningless term that adds little to our understanding of the problem.

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Actually, the quick assumption of mental illness distorts the discussion. First, it smears people who do have mental disorders. Such people are not inherently highly prone to violence. They are more often victims of violence than perpetrators. And to the extent that some are violent, they are more likely to inflict harm on themselves. Mental-health issues are correlated to suicides far more closely than they are to homicides.

Second, turning immediately to the “sickness” of the shooter and piously calling for better mental-health care is, more often than not, an attempt to divert attention from the main issue: guns. (It’s also breathtakingly cynical because the politicians who use this rhetoric are typically the ones who also aim to cut funding for mental-health treatment.) Every conversation about gun deaths should begin by recognizing one blindingly clear fact about this problem — the United States is on its own planet. The gun-related death rate in the United States is 10 times that of other advanced industrial countries. Places such as Japan and South Korea have close to zero gun-related deaths in a year. The United States has around 30,000.  

This disparity is the central fact that needs to be studied, explained and addressed. When seen in this light, it becomes obvious why focusing on mental health is a dodge. The rate of mental illness in the United States is not anywhere close to 40 times the rate in Britain. But the rate of gun deaths is 40 times higher. America does have more than 14 times as many guns as Britain per capita, and far fewer restrictions on their ownership and use. That’s the obvious correlation staring us in the face, as we insist on talking about every other possible issue.

And this is not simply a case of the United States being different from the rest of the developed world. Data that look carefully at gun violence across the United States find a similarly tight correlation. States that have some of the highest percentages of gun ownership have some of the highest gun-related death rates (Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Arkansas), and those with some of the lowest rates of gun ownership generally have the lowest gun-related death rates (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island).

Then there are what almost look like social science experiments. On the one hand, Connecticut passed a law in 1995 that made it harder to buy guns. In the following decade, the gun-related homicide rate was 40 percent lower than projected had the law not been passed, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. On the other hand, Missouri in 2007 made it much easier to buy a gun. Over the next five years, the gun-related homicide rate was 25 percent higher than projected.

How to tackle this issue is a more complex problem, made particularly difficult by the fact that we refuse to study it — literally. One of the main government agencies that sponsors research on public health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been virtually forbidden by law from doing any research on gun violence and public policy for two decades. Buried in a 1996 law is a provision, championed by the National Rifle Association, that prohibits the CDC from funding research that might “advocate or promote gun control.” In the United States, in 2017, we essentially have a ban on scientific research that might lead to inconvenient conclusions.

Given the Second Amendment, America’s gun culture and the influence of the gun lobby, there isn’t any simple answer. But there are many small fixes that would make a big difference: universal background checks; restrictions on military-style weaponry (of which banning bump stocks would be a tiny first step); a ban on selling to people with a history of domestic violence or substance abuse. But first we have to stop the dodges and the diversions. When you consider America’s stubborn inaction in the face of this continuing and preventable epidemic of gun violence — I sometimes wonder if it is all of us Americans who are crazy.

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