Guns and Mental Illness 19 August 2019.

The recent spate of mass shootings has poured gas on the smoldering debate over guns.  Broadly, perhaps over-broadly, two schools of thought confront one another.  Democrats want access to firearms massively restricted, starting with assault-style weapons.  This amounts to penalizing the many because of the crimes of a few.  Republicans call for improved mental health screening and treatment, while also calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act which expanded access to mental health services.  Democrats counter that most mass killers aren’t mentally ill: they’re inspired by racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and Donald Trump.

In the wake of the  El Paso and Dayton massacres, Richard Friedman argued that mass murderers are not so much mentally ill, as conquered by hate and sometimes sucked in by extremist ideologies.  Gun control, including enhanced background checks, offers a better course than concentrating on “mental health” issues.[1]

One problem for this line of argument is that a bunch of the mass shooters have been people with serious mental problems.  Jared Lee Loughner was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and ruled incompetent to stand trial.  After the Columbine shootings, the FBI concluded that Eric Harris was a psychopath, and Dylan Klebold was a depressive with violent ideation.  James Holmes was mentally ill (probably some variety of schizophrenic), but sane enough to stand trial.  Travis Reinking suffered from delusions (including that he was being stalked by Taylor Swift) and appeared in a pink woman’s housecoat before exposing himself at a public swimming pool.

Yes, a bunch of the mass shooters have been proponents of hatred and racism.  Many others have slaughtered family members in relationships gone bad, many others have slaughtered former co-workers, and many others haven’t seemed to care who they killed as long as they killed somebody.

On the same days as Friedman’s opinion piece, Kim Strassel made an important point.[2]    According to Strassel, in 2017, the Pew Research Center published a study of the “demographics of gun ownership” in America.  Strassel  reported some of its findings. The fact that Democrats living along I-95 or I-5 don’t like guns masks politically important realities.  Overall, well over a third (42 percent) of Americans live in a home with some kind of firearm.  This includes 58 percent of people in rural areas, 48 percent of political Independents, 41 percent of people living in the suburbs, and 25 percent of Democrats.

About 75 percent of these people are determined to keep their firearms, which they regard as “essential to their own sense of freedom.”  “For today’s gun owners, the right to own guns nearly rivals other rights laid out in the U.S. Constitution—freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to privacy, and freedom of religion.[3]

In short, the sort of gun control envisioned by Democratic activists and politicians face serious political opposition from gun owners who threaten no one.  Given the importance of the right to keep and bear arms to gun owners, it could cost the Democrats the White House in 2020.  The problem is how to include psychological screening in enhanced background checks.  JMO.

[1] “Letters to the Editor: Probing the Psyches of Mass Killers,” NYT, 18 August 2019.

[2] Kimberley Strassel, “Going to Extremes Against Guns,” WSJ, 9 August 2019.

[3] Indeed, the right to keep and bear arms looks something like a religion.

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