This happens every time a mass shooting occurs: we are treated to a litany about mental health courtesy of talking heads on broadcast news, think pieces in print and online publications, and of course, our Facebook friends.
If what you’d like is to put a stop to this nonsense in short order—assuming you have the luxury of being able to respond to the authors of these ideas—then you need only point out how small the fraction of mass shootings is compared to gun violence as a whole in our country. Most violent crimes involving firearms have nothing to do with mental health.
Of course, we as a nation have deemed unprovoked mass shootings the most tragic type of gun violence, and its victims the most worthy of our sympathies. Let’s leave aside the problematic implications of that fact for just a moment and focus then, on mass shootings.
Elliot Rodger passed a mental health screening for each of his three semi-automatic pistols. Rodgers was a California resident, and as such went up against some of the toughest gun legislation in the country before obtaining his firearms. And the inference we can draw from that fact is that the so-called common sense gun regulations sought by President Obama may do nothing to deter this kind of crime. At best, the primary virtue of these reforms would simply be reducing the number of guns owned by private citizens, which would in fact decrease gun violence, as corollary statistics can easily demonstrate.
Leaving Rodgers aside, there is the simple fact that mental health problems are not at all unique to the United States, and while there are many thinkable reforms that our mental healthcare system would benefit from, there is no particular reason to believe they would deter or prevent mass shootings in any significant way. We’re left to examine this oft-repeated fact: the United States is the only country in the developed world where mass shootings routinely occur. And the only thing that sets us apart from the others is the ease with which we allow our citizens to acquire guns (and more specifically, the kinds of guns we let our citizens own).
The truth is that advocating mental health reform is an easy position to take after a mass shooting. ‘He must have been deranged,’ we like to tell ourselves. In fact, that sentiment has become little more than a platitude at this point. We’re willing to take it for granted, because we don’t empathize with mass killers. We can’t imagine ourselves in their shoes at all; we’re unwilling to, and we’re afraid of what we might discover about ourselves if we did. And while I don’t disagree that many mass killers are profoundly disturbed, I do contend that saying so every time a shooting occurs is a simple act of othering that diverts us from having a genuine discussion on the subject of gun violence in the US.
What advocates of mental health reform and not gun reform do achieve is this: an easily-defendable not-likely-to-be-attacked political position that gives off an air of compassion without the requisite critical thinking of a well-researched, hard-won political stance. And for most, that’s good enough.
In mainstream American politics it is the quintessential liberal wet dream that one day republicans and NRA #truebelievers will walk down the aisle with them on this issue, allowing them to continuously express their concerns about mass shootings and violence while not offending gun owners or talking shit on the second amendment. Even what passes for scathing liberal rhetoric—i.e. President Obama’s speech in response to the Oregon shooting—panders relentlessly to these twin pillars of gun rights in America. Such maneuvering ought not pass muster for truly liberal politicians and their constituents in the twenty-first century.
Even one human life is too high a price for entertaining the delusions of grandeur possessed by those who believe they will one day be ordained by fate to save their loved ones from phantom intruders in the middle of the night, or to placate the far more asinine notion that, if warranted, an uprising led by armed citizens could someday overthrow the might of a government that spends hundreds of billions each year to protect itself against threats from within and without its borders. If you want to sleep more soundly at night, keep a baseball bat in your bedroom. If you want to overthrow the government your most effective ordnance in the modern era is a laptop.