Our American Dilemma: Is it a Gun Control or a Mental Health Problem?

Our American Dilemma: Is it a Gun Control or a Mental Health Problem?
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Shortly after the mass shooting of 26 people in a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas by a single person with a gun, President Trump provided his “informed” diagnosis of this tragedy from Japan, on the first leg of his 12-day Asian trip.

He proclaimed “I think that mental health is your problem here.” Trump added “This isn’t a guns situation.”

In response to a reporter’s question, one day later in Korea, Trump reinforced his “expert” opinion stating that gun control would have made “no difference.”

He went on to congratulate the person who shot the mass killer opining “If he didn’t have a gun instead of having 26 dead, you would’ve had hundreds more dead. So that’s the way I feel about it. Not gonna help.”

The case may be closed in the President’s mind. But, that does not make it so in reality.

The sad truth is that this latest tragic incident involving gun violence highlights our American dilemma: Is this a gun control or a mental health problem?

We believe this is a false choice. This is a gun control problem. It is also a mental health problem.

The reason this “either or” debate goes on says something about the mental health of the nation related to guns. Put simply, in general, we the people are schizoid and in a state of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the issue of guns and gun control.

We first discovered this in doing research for a blog we wrote after the shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. A poll done by TIME/CNN/ORC International at that time found that while there was fairly strong support for gun control measures gun control was not a compelling “wedge” issue for the vast majority of the public.

After the Newtown incident, various polls showed that around 50 percent of the public was for gun control versus 45 percent for gun rights. There was a huge “activism” gap, however, with a much higher percentage of gun rights supporters contributing money to organizations advocating for gun rights and contacting elected officials on gun issues.

This activism of the gun rights supporters in conjunction with the ambivalence of much of the public provides an explanation for why federal gun legislation for something as simple and straightforward as background checks for gun purchases has stayed in limbo in the nearly five years since Sandy Hook. The question becomes whether the recent mass killings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs will impact public opinion sufficiently to enable the passage of gun control legislation.

There have not been new polls on this yet. But, a survey done by the Pew Research Center in August of 2016 during the presidential election is instructive.

The Pew survey found that 90 percent of registered voters who backed Hillary Clinton and 75 percent of voters who backed Donald Trump supported background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows. That sounds promising for gun control until one peels back the layers of the onion.

That same Pew survey disclosed that:

  • A larger number of people felt it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (52%) than to control gun ownership (46%). Since 2000, there has been a widening gap between Democratic and Republican presidential candidate supporters on this issue.
  • In 2016, Republican were less likely to support a ban (35%) on assault weapons than in 2015 (44%)
  • A majority of the public (58%) says that gun ownership does more to protect people from becoming crime victims than putting people’s safety at risk (37%). The demographic groups which fell below 50% on this item were: Black (46%); Dem/Lean Dem (39%); and Postgraduate (37%).

The conclusion from this is that conditions coming into 2017 were not conducive to getting any meaningful gun control legislation passed.

These most recent mass shootings may move the needle of overall public sentiment slightly but it will not unite us on the issue. The divide is far too great for that.

As we noted in our 2013 blog, “Limiting our analysis and inquiry to gun control simplifies a very complex problem and makes it merely a confrontation between the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks.”

Back then, we also recommended that:

“We need to examine all of the factors that contribute to violence with weapons including access to and types of guns, mental health, insufficient security, and socio-economic conditions. Then, we should come up with a comprehensive and multidimensional legislative solution that maximizes the potential for solving this problem in a holistic manner.”

That was then. This is now.

In retrospect, while our recommendation may have been the rational and analytical thing to do, it did not and does not square with where we were or where we are as a nation and people on this matter. It is time instead to apply the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle.

The current climate provides the opportunity to move beyond making guns or the mentally ill the culprits for all of this. It presents the chance for a pivot point and a compromise.

That compromise would be to develop a carefully crafted two-part piece of legislation that addresses gun ownership and mental health and violence upon others and one’s self with guns. The passage of such legislation would eliminate the false choice that presently exists and be a positive step to resolving our American dilemma in this area.

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