Here’s my first attempt at crowd-sourcing: Can someone out there explain to me why this week’s New York Times editorial on gun control isn’t proof positive that the paper’s bottom line isn’t enhancing public safety but simply turning America into a gigantic fire-arms-free zone for its own sake?
First, let me make clear that guns aren’t atop my issue list. Partly that’s because although I’m sure that more useful steps can be taken to keep guns out of the wrong hands, I’m skeptical that public policy can make a decisive difference. Nonetheless, my jaw nearly dropped out of my head when I read The Times editorial board’s claim that mental illness shouldn’t be blamed for gun violence.
Of course, that’s true – in a debating-point sense. “Gun violence” encompasses a wide range of incidents, including crimes, suicides, and accidents. Nor does The Times totally absolve mental illness of any responsibility for these outrages and tragedies, or oppose addressing mental health “as part of a broader effort to reduce gun violence.” But its overarching point is dismissing the mental illness focus as a cynical gun-lobby ploy to convince Americans that mass shootings are the country’s main gun violence problem. That should make clear that the paper’s anti-gun campaign mainly stems from emotion, not reason.
The Times position flows from that claim that “mass shootings represent a small percentage of gun violence.” But this reality couldn’t be more irrelevant to the current debate on guns – which results from and which has intensified because of those mass shootings themselves. These events have certainly been what’s mainly motivating President Obama, at least judging by both his words and deeds. He’s addressed the nation no less than 15 times after mass shootings (not counting the San Bernardino, California attack, which he fairly quickly recognized was an act of terrorism). And one of his own leading arguments for more effective gun control is the assertion that such shootings happen much more often in the United States than in countries with tougher gun laws.
Even The Times itself has concentrated on mass shootings. Its front-page editorial on gun violence – the first of its kind since the 1920s – was sparked by San Bernardino, which it immediately linked to the horrific recent gun killings in “Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places.” Not all of these tragedies were triggered simply by individuals who were simply deranged. But even the perpetrators of the Colorado Springs assault on a Planned Parenthood clinic and the Charleston atrocity against black church-goers no doubt were seriously disturbed as well as avowed crusaders against abortion and racial integration, respectively.
Moreover, right after the paragraph listing these events, The Times targeted “weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency” and “spree killings.” Other than terrorists, who goes on spree killings? People with balanced, healthy outlooks on life?
From the opposite perspective, how often has The Times railed against all those other forms of gun violence plaguing the country, including the ongoing murder wave in inner cities like Chicago’s and Baltimore’s? Or about gun suicides? Or crimes of passion? All are no doubt made easier to contemplate and carry out with weapons that can kill at a distance, or with minimal physical effort. But they haven’t been in the gun control spotlight because they’re not marked by the combination of scale, suddenness, randomness, and irrationality of mass shootings by the mentally ill. And indeed, the complexity and variety of the causes strongly cautions against lumping all these incidents and trends under a single “gun violence” or “gun epidemic” label.
So although it’s undeniable that treating mental illness more effectively is no panacea for gun-related problems, a focus on psychological maladies can absolutely be justified by the distinctively terrible characteristics of mass shootings by the mentally ill, and because single causality means that solutions are within reach. That is, meaningful progress can be made on this score precisely because responses don’t need to deal with deep-rooted social and economic problems, or imagined or real Constitutional issues, or technical definitions of assault weapons.
At the same time, it’s high time for advocates of the mental health-centric strategy to come up with proposals that go far beyond establishing more and better enforced barriers to gun acquisition by this population. Requiring health insurers to handle mental illness on a par with physical diseases would be a great place to start, and the longer avowed Second Amendment champions delay in backing such measures, the more their own motives deserve to be questioned.