Mental illness and its rhetorical cousin, “evil,” have existed throughout history and around the world. Neither explain why gun massacres in public places occur disproportionately in the United States and have spiked in 2019.
We should instead look to the political climate of division, the emergence of self-radicalizing white supremacists and gun accessibility.
First there is the context. Religious-based hate—manifested as Islamic terrorism, anti-Semitism or anti-Islamic violence—along with the demonization of immigrants provided the backdrop for lazy thinkers who seek easy solutions to complex modern dilemmas. Racial or religious motives characterized five lethal attacks in the past year.
We live in a multiracial and multi-ethnic society of people whose faiths encompass different religious traditions; learning to live together is an imperative. Understanding and tolerance must be promoted in schools and religious centers, in families and by political leaders.
Job stress, financial insecurity and a bleak view of the common future can contribute to feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness. Here’s where angry political rhetoric and a culture of blame stoke the flames of extreme thinking.
Combatting the re-emergence of domestic terrorism tied to white nationalist and white supremacist ideologies needs to be one of law enforcement’s highest priorities. After “white power” t-shirt sporting Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the domestic terrorism threat was high on the national agenda, but the focus switched to Islamic extremism after 9/11. Both phenomena require vigilance.
Finally, the tools of domestic terrorism must be controlled. California has made great strides in limiting the availability of assault-type weapons, but without federal action, they will travel from state to state. Gun laws can differentiate between weapons used for sport or personal defense and the kind of weapon optimized to inflict maximum casualties in a crowded public place.
The Second Amendment gives Americans certain rights, and there are also the “inalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. When there’s a conflict of rights, our forefathers in their wisdom provided legislative and judicial processes to sort through the issues.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” President Trump said on Aug.5 after the Texas and Ohio tragedies. “We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence.”
White supremacy is not a mental illness, however, and data shows that people without mental disorders commit the majority of crimes. The call for legal reform, however vague, suggests a thought-police approach that would raise civil liberties issues, as would Trump’s call for preemptive incarceration.
If the federal government is serious about addressing this facet of the issue, then it should commit real resources toward healing minds and psyches rather than calling for more laws.
Funding mental health programs. Sensible gun laws. Toning down rhetoric against the “others.” And antiterrorism initiatives to combat the rise of white supremacist violence.
We know what we have to do. Let’s do it before the next flurry of headlines hits.