It doesn’t take long to meet the gunman, or at last a hasty sketch of him, drawn from a trickle of details that never quite snap into focus. This one is 19 years old, a quiet loner who hated school and loves firearms. He used Instagram to post anti-Muslim slurs, and to share photos of his extensive weapons collection, animals he’d killed, and himself in a Trump hat. By all accounts he was a deeply “troubled kid,” who at some point legally purchased an AR-15 assault-style rifle, which he used to kill 17 people in the hallways and classrooms of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Thursday morning.
A few hours later, for the fourth time since taking office, President Trump addressed the nation about the latest instance of deadly gun violence. Earlier in the day, he’d taken to Twitter to chastise the traumatized high schoolers for not reporting their classmate’s erratic behavior:
So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2018
In his speech, the president now stuck to a script, which largely emphasized the need to do something about mental illness. He took extra care to not once use the word “gun.” At one point, Trump spoke directly, disturbingly to the “American children,” straining to convey even a baseline level of compassion while winking at his NRA boosters. This empathy deficit is a profoundly disturbing thing to witness, made so much worse by the fact that all of this keeps happening, nearly every day.
Here’s what doesn’t have to happen: We don’t need to accept the president’s link between mental illness and gun violence. It’s a smokescreen, trotted out over and over again by politicians who’d have you believe that the key to stopping this uniquely American epidemic is not common-sense gun reform, but a database of disturbed individuals. And while bringing up mental health in the wake of a mass shooting may seem logical, just about anyone who studies the issue can offer a mountain of evidence for why the connection is tenuous, and even dangerous.
“It’s been very well established by now that the link between mental illness and gun violence is a non sequitur that’s really not relevant compared to other factors,” Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, tells the Voice. Though less than one percent of yearly gun homicides are committed by people with severe mental illness, the link still colors so much of our post-tragedy conversation — particularly when the shooter is white. Other factors like a history of domestic violence, substance use, fighting, childhood abuse, and being male are all more predictive of nonsuicidal gun violence than a psychiatric diagnosis, according to Metzl.
It’s not just Trump and the gun lobby — plenty of well-meaning liberals, understandably frustrated by the absence of progress on most other aspects of the debate, fall into the same easy trope. We saw this again on Thursday, as some elected officials focused on restricting gun purchases by people with histories of mental illness, and journalists pointed to New York as a model for how to do it. That legislation, pushed through by Governor Cuomo in 2013, contains the most expansive language in the country for keeping guns from those deemed mentally unwell.
And while New York’s gun safety legislation has been largely effective, Metzl says that particular provision is “misguided, because it forces psychiatrists to surveil and turn in their patients without any basis.” Within a year of the law’s passage, the New York Times learned that the database contained the names of 34,500 people considered a danger to themselves or others, each of whom is now entered into state and national registries. That hasn’t stopped the governor from urging the nation to follow our lead, as he did on Thursday, boasting that his law has “kept guns out of the hands of dangerously mentally ill people.”
Such rhetoric, Metzl notes,“taps into a longstanding stigma of people with mental illness as ticking time bombs, which is really not true: People with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, and much more likely to be shot by the police.” It’s estimated that 25 to 50 percent of individuals fatally shot by police have mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, finding an instructive example doesn’t require much digging. On Thursday morning, as details about the Florida gunman were still emerging, the New York police sergeant who shot and killed a Bronx woman in her home two years earlier was acquitted on all charges. According to the NYPD account, Deborah Danner was behaving erratically and carrying a baseball bat, leaving Sergeant Hugh Barry no choice but to use lethal force on the 66-year-old woman within five minutes of entering her apartment. After the verdict, leaders of the Sergeants Benevolent Association spent much of the day sharing crude memes on Twitter, in celebration of beating what they viewed as a “political indictment.”
In at least one sense, they’re right: The manner in which we negotiate mental illness and gun violence is most clearly political, and not just when it relates to the latest mass shooter. Deborah Danner understood this, noting four years before her death that her mental illness could put her at real risk of state violence. She’d laid this out in a remarkable essay titled “Living With Schizophrenia,” in which she warns of the grave danger posed by cops who are “not trained sufficiently in how to engage the mentally ill in crisis.” She continued on with a wish list — housing for the homeless, better mental health treatment for the incarcerated — until she arrived at a striking thesis, one that reads now as a timely reminder for those touting databases and blaming mental illness:
“Stigma causes people to treat you differently. Even people who know you, when informed that you are mentally ill assume things about you that aren’t true. It’s a practice that must be be stamped out. Mental illness is just that, an illness, a treatable illness and most of the public needs to be educated about that fact.”