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Opinion | Ben Jackson

Mass shootings and the mental health lie

Illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

Depending on your definition of “mass shooting,” there have been between 250 and 300 mass shootings in the United States in 2019. We know some of their names: El Paso, Gilroy, Dayton, Virginia Beach. Others pass in relative silence, part of the susurrus of gunfire, sirens, and funeral bells of the American soundscape. They disappear, and government moves on to its next failure.

And once again the National Rifle Association and the politicians it supports are trying to drive the narrative that mental health is the root cause of these shootings. On Aug. 9, in a typically breathtaking spray of self-aggrandizement on the White House lawn, Donald Trump said, “A gun doesn’t pull the trigger — a sick mind pulls the trigger” and “I don’t want crazy people to have guns.” But mental health isn’t an issue in most mass shootings, and this tired trope is the pinnacle of deadly hypocrisy from those intent on avoiding the true causes of preventable gun violence in America.


Studies of mass shooters tell the true story: Only between 20 and 25 percent of mass shooters have a diagnosed mental illness. The data simply do not back up the new twist on the NRA’s old cliché: “Guns don’t kill people; crazy people kill people.” And falling for this narrative is deadly.

While it’s true that people with severe mental illness are slightly more likely to have violent tendencies, they are far, far more likely to be the victims of violent attacks . And the rhetoric from the president, his NRA masters, and those who do not want to address the core cause of gun violence — namely the easy availability of guns in America — further stigmatizes and victimizes those with these terrible diseases.


But let’s try, for a moment, to think like the president and disregard the overwhelming evidence disproving his basic thesis. Instead, let’s incorrectly presume that mental health problems are the cause of mass shootings and that the mentally ill are a danger to those of us lucky enough not to be afflicted with serious mental illness.

Why then would you work so hard to remove access to effective, affordable mental health?

The Trump administration, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and their allies in federal and state government have launched attack after attack on the Affordable Care Act since Trump first took office. While those efforts failed in the Senate, a lawsuit led by Texas and joined by 19 other states puts the Affordable Care Act at real risk. The Trump administration refuses to defend the ACA against this lawsuit.

If the ACA is struck down, the results will be staggering. The Urban Institute estimates that nearly 20 million people will lose their health insurance. That’s 20 million people who will lose their ability to access any mental health services. But it doesn’t stop there. Because the ACA expanded on the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, millions more could lose some or all of their mental health coverage, even if they have insurance through their employer.

Additionally, the Medicaid work requirements that the administration is attempting to enact will cause even further loss of insurance and benefits and probably deepen poverty. A Kaiser Family Foundation report found that “even when working, adults with Medicaid face high rates of financial and food insecurity, as they are still living in or near poverty.” Removing access to health care for those unable to find or keep even those low-wage jobs will be devastating. Most studies show that poverty correlates with an increased likelihood of mental illness; taking away benefits from the poor will simply make more people unable to afford or obtain treatment for their mental illness.


By Trump’s own so-called logic, this alone will increase the risk of mass shootings in America.

Although we’ve already established that Trump is wrong about the links between mental illness and mass shootings, there is an important intersection between poverty, suicide, and guns. People living in poverty are more likely to die by suicide. People living in poverty are more likely to suffer from depression. People with depression are more likely to attempt, and die from, suicide. More people die by gun suicide than gun homicide, and since guns are the most deadly method when attempting suicide, the true madness in the GOP’s alleged efforts to reduce violence is apparent.

If Trump and his party are serious about reducing gun violence, the only way to do so is to reduce the availability and accessibility of guns while reversing their cruel and misguided attacks on access to health care and social support services. Any politician or pundit making a different argument is telling a deadly lie.


And already, too many of us have died because of it.

Ben Jackson is a writer, activist, and cofounder, with Alyssa Milano, of #NoRA, a coalition of artists, activists, survivors, and policy experts dedicated to countering the political influence of the NRA. He lives in Massachusetts. Follow #NoRA on Twitter @NoRA4USA.