Republicans are using mental health as an excuse to do nothing about gun violence

The shooting on October 1, 2015, in Oregon has been met with a call for reform of the United States’ mental health system by multiple Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump said that “it sounds like another mental health problem.” Ben Carson said that the issue centered around the “mentality of the people” before blaming the shooting victims for their own deaths. Marco Rubio called the matter a “serious societal issue,” while noting the possibility of mental health issues playing a role in violence. However, television personalities like John Oliver have doubted the Republicans’ sincerity in pursuing mental health reform, especially that regarding gun violence. Indeed, the record and policy proposals of most leading Republicans indicates that their interest in mental health is more of an excuse to not talk about gun control than a genuine effort to develop nuanced systems that reduce the federal budget and protect the safety of the public.

Notwithstanding the serious issues with Donald Trump’s position paper on civilian firearms, Trump ironically appears to have identified the most significant nuances in public policy on mental health and guns. He notes that in spite of the presence of a national background check system, many states fail to put criminal and mental health records into the system. Indeed, according to a Government Accountability Office report, the million mental health records submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) from 2004 to 2011 have reflected largely only the efforts of 12 states. Nearly half of all states have increased the number of mental health records by fewer than just 100 each.

This means that because of state laws hindering the federal cataloging of mental health records, federal regulations on mental health and gun control remain grossly ineffective in a great majority of US states. But Trump’s half-hearted exploration of this matter falls flat on its policy prescription, as it merely calls for the “fix(ing) of the system we have and make it work as intended.” At no point has he ever discussed the ramifications of his “policy proposal.” So long as state HIPAA laws hinder the federal system, a great expansion of federal power over state gun control systems would be needed to enforce our government’s laws. This runs contrarily to Trump’s rhetoric, as he says in broad, generic terms, that we don’t need to expand the system we have.

Furthermore, some states like South Carolina, the state of the terrorist attack on a Charleston church on June 17, have even repealed regulations requiring identification for pistol purchases. There are numerous other loopholes in states like South Carolina that allow buyers to circumvent background checks. This, and other failures of states to provide adequate measures to enforce federal regulations, is at odds with Trump’s supposedly “common sense” proposals, since they ignore the need for the expansion of federal power or federal legislation to enforce Trump’s gun control schemes.

Even given the policy analysis failures of Trump’s positions, other leading Republican contenders for the presidency are far more clearly referring to mental health as an excuse to dodge gun control rather than develop a functional system.

Ben Carson has barely demonstrated any knowledge on the policy issues of national background checks, with what little discussion he devotes to the topic being focused on platitudes that have little relevance to legislative issues of the Congress or the presidency. No discussion is devoted to mental health in his policy position web pages for healthcare and gun control. If anything, his rhetoric hardening his refusal to “weaken the Second Amendment” would make his positions anathema to mental health and firearm reform, given gun rights groups’ opposition to national background checks in spite of widespread public approval.

Much of the same has been seen among the remaining leaders in the race. Jeb Bush’s pitiful “stuff happens” response is little more than him closing his eyes and hoping that it all goes away. Carly Fiorina’s talk on mental health has largely related to elderly diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that do not play as significant of a role in mass shootings. Even in such discussions, she’s demonstrated little awareness of the fact that some federal programs supporting treatment for mental illnesses may pay for themselves. Instead, she’s called for across-the-board cuts to force accountability. Despite her experience in the corporate world, she’s merely paying lip service to the hackneyed clichés on “programs that work”, without demonstrating any awareness on exactly which programs work.

The Republican Party’s established platform may not even permit any significant reform to the mental health system. Their politicians have repeatedly engaged in calamitous grandstanding against programs that support the expansion of Medicaid reimbursements, a key problem, among many others, identified by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the fight for better treatments.

The Oregon shooting has helped to reignite the discussion on the call for mental health reform on both sides of the aisle. It’s a discussion that is long overdue, but without serious policy proposals from those who helped start the discussion—Republican politicians like Trump, Carson, Fiorina, and Bush—federal reform will go nowhere. Unfortunately, the Republican presidential candidates this year are acting like children in philosophy class—their talk on public policy has been limited to rudimentary discussions and has demonstrated a very limited understanding of the Presidency’s required readings of Government Accountability Office reports, scientific papers, and Supreme Court cases.


Anhvinh Doanvo is an MSPPM candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. He has written for numerous publications including The Hill, Georgetown Public Policy Review, and Baltimore Sun. He is one of forty 2016 finalists for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which funds twenty US citizens' graduate education annually and places them in the American Foreign Service of the Department of State. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anhvinhdoanvo or Facebook at Facebook.com/AnhvinhD.

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  • woodroad34

    What I find ironic is that republicans in California in the 50’s and 60’s slowly dismantled state-run mental health facilities and privatized mental health care; in effect–if you couldn’t pay, the patients were dumped on the street. Then Reagan became Governor and under him they passed a law (The LPS Act) which made it more difficult to put the crazies away. Then, just after he assumed the presidency, Reagan was shot by an untreated schizophrenic, David Hinckley.

    Since republicans are now claiming that the crazies are shooting people…it’s become a fait acompli,,, because of the republicans. Children shouldn’t play with loaded politics.

  • Buford

    I’ll state the obvious… this uniquely-American epidemic of mass shootings is a gun issue, not a mental health issue. If your primary concern is the threat of an army of mentally-ill Americans who are potentially violent yet not getting the treatment they desperately need, then your first action should be vociferously demanding laws which ensure that these people can never gain access to guns!!

    Not that damn hard, people.

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  • And then the Republicans use the fact it’s a health issue — including being the type they don’t seem to believe is real — as their usual go-to excuse for doing nothing about that, too.

    Of course they also simply refuse to do anything to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

    It’s also a ridiculously disingenuous position, because had the Oregon mass murderer not committed suicide or been killed by the cops, the GOPers would’ve been first in line to deny any kind of “innocent by reason of insanity” plea.

  • Both sides have mumbled for decades about the mental health issue with regards to gun violence, and mental health care has only steadily deteriorated. The Affordable Care Act offered a glimmer of hope, but it still doesn’t really address the problem directly. There is a major problem in the way Republicans frame the debate though, and that they consider mental health care to be a law enforcement issue, not a health care issue. They want to rely entirely on people turning in anyone they think may be mentally unstable – which would result in a general mess of false accusations and nonsense that would ultimately result in “called wolf” syndrome, where nobody would care anymore.

    In the end though, assuming we had a perfect background check system, the only way to have mental illness prevent you from getting a legal gun is to first be declared incompetent by a court of law. Not exactly easy, especially considering only a teeny tiny fraction of mentally ill people are ever considered legally incompetent. They seem to have this idea that anyone who gets a prescription for antidepressants from their doctor is magically going to be declared unfit to own a firearm. Which is total nonsense. We direly need mental health reform, but this will not do anything at all to solve the problems of gun violence.

  • JaneE

    Guns = more dead. A nut with a bomb would be called a terrorist, not a mass murderer. A nut with a knife, or a bat, or a knitting needle would have a hard time killing as many people as a nut with a gun. A nut with a gun and some high-capacity magazines gets to be a mass murderer, instead of just a murderer.

    Do you want to save lives, or not? Apparently the goal is to make sure as many die as possible. The question is why do we let people with that agenda run our government?

  • Indigo

    Is that the same mental health system that Reagan so carefully dismantled during the 1980s?

  • emjayay

    Of course, Ben Carson has barely demonstrated any knowledge of policy issues of any kind, with whatever discussion he devotes to any topic being focused on platitudes that have little relevance to legislative issues of the Congress or the presidency.

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