On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan made his first remarks about the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
He said nothing about guns, but traded easily in false stereotypes linking mental illness with mass murder. He said that “one of the things we’ve learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness.” He touted the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed with wide bipartisan support in the waning days of the Obama administration.
Let’s be clear. Only 3% to 5% of all violent crimes involve people with psychiatric disabilities, including conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. People with such conditions make up more than 18% of the American population. These individuals are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than those without mental illness.
Talking about mental illness, whether it’s relevant or not in a given case — and it is often not — is an attempt to dodge talking about guns.
It’s long since time to separate conversations about mental health and gun violence.
But there is no sign that Ryan or his fellow Republicans are ready to actually work on issues of either mental health or gun proliferation. Ryan has been singing the same song linking mental illness to mass shootings for years. In 2015, for example, after the murders in San Bernardino, he warned about “home-grown jihadists,” and then added, “We have seen, in a common theme, among many of these mass shootings, is a theme of mental illness.”
At the time, Ryan was touting a bill, the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” which emphasized taking rights away from individuals with disabilities and giving them to families. That legislation, some of which made its way into the 21st Century Cures Act, promoted institutionalization and coercive drug use. It passed. Meanwhile, guns keep proliferating, gun deaths keep rising, and the National Rifle Association keeps donating heavily to GOP officials.
Since President Donald Trump took office, every Republican attempt to replace Obamacare has proposed stripping away community and medical supports from people with mental health needs. If the GOP has its way on health care, insurance companies would have the right to raise premiums and potentially even deny care based on pre-existing conditions. People with mental health needs would either have to hide their conditions or go broke trying to pay for care.
In other words, Speaker Ryan and his party seem to be imagining a world in which individuals with mental illness cannot get care, are blamed for mass violence and risk being locked up in mental hospitals.
Democrats aren’t always so great on mental health and gun control, either. The stigmas and ignorance are sadly bipartisan. After Las Vegas, some left-wing pundits were far too quick to pounce on the decision last February to relax an Obama-era rule that banned individuals with mental disabilities from buying guns
I’m loudly on the record in favor of gun control, but that was a bad rule. We’re not going to get anywhere using evidence-free ableism (that is, discrimination in favor of people without disabilities) as a tool to fight gun violence.
But at least Democrats recognize that the problem is guns. We should be studying the best practices from around the world in reducing mass shootings and everyday gun violence. We should investigate the illegal pathways that guns travel from states like Arkansas and Indiana into cities like Chicago.
We should agree that someone like the Las Vegas shooter, who police say stockpiled a huge arsenal and legally converted his weapons to shoot as quickly as fully automatic rifles, might have set off some alarm bells with law enforcement as he was acquiring all this firepower.
There are lots of first steps to take. But Republicans in Congress aren’t going to allow us to even start the conversation. There are reports that some congressional Republicans are showing interest in legislation that would restrict “bump stock” devices that enable semi-automatic rifles to fire rapidly like automatic weapons. We’ll see if they maintain that interest. (Of course, the news sent consumers rushing to the store to buy the devices.)
No one serious about making our country safer should advocate for locking up Americans with psychological disabilities while letting guns roam free. Any move to place the rights of guns over the rights of people with mental health needs is pure politics, not evidence-based or pragmatic. We cannot fix the problems in our country by playing on stigmas. And we cannot arm our way to a freer society.