As survivors called for gun control, Trump made vague noises about "mental health."
Left: Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty; Right: Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty
On Wednesday, America was reminded that it's easy for a disturbed person to acquire guns and walk into almost any school, office, or store in the country and start killing. This time, the site was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former student killed at least 17 people and wounded more than a dozen others. It was the second-deadliest public school shooting in American history. The country has suffered through so many similar incidents—at schools and concerts and nightclubs—in recent years that the response is almost ritualized: Photos are distributed of victims' families huddling in grief, biographies are assembled of the suddenly famous murderer, thoughts and prayers are offered in person and online, and many, many Americans call desperately for gun control.
The question hanging over everything is always the same, too: How do we prevent this from happening again? But Donald Trump and other Republicans remain unwilling or unable to take that question seriously.
On Thursday morning, the president noted on Twitter that there were signs the shooter was "mentally disturbed" and chided, "Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!" But what the authorities could have done about the shooter's problems isn't clear. He reportedly passed a background check when he bought the AR-15 he used in the spree; Florida has fairly lax gun laws, and the shooter didn't fit into any of the narrow categories of people who can't buy or own firearms under state or federal law. (Many mentally ill people can legally own guns.) Last year, the shooter made a YouTube comment that said, “I’m gonna be a professional school shooter.” That comment was reported to the FBI, but little or nothing was done—in America, being obviously unbalanced and obsessed with guns is not a reason under the law to inhibit someone's Second Amendment rights.
Later Thursday, Trump gave a more substantial response in a six-minute address to the country in which he declared, "It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference." The only action the president promised to take was pretty vague, though. "We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health," he said. "Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorney generals where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority."
"Mental health" is of course the Republican go-to phrase after a mass shooting. Attorney Jeff Sessions alluded to it on Thursday as well. But people who actually study mass shootings often say that their perpetrators are hardly ever mentally ill. And though Republicans have talked for years about "mental health" as a counter to calls for gun control, they've also supported cuts to mental health services. The American Health Care Act, a.k.a. "Obamacare repeal," would have made it harder for many suffering from mental illness to get treatment by slashing Medicaid and eliminating requirements that private insurers provide mental health coverage. If Trump was talking about placing restrictions on the mentally ill owning guns, that's a different debate—but Trump has already signed a bill striking down those very restrictions.
As for "school safety," that could mean a few things. Trump has previously endorsed the NRA-sanctioned plan of arming teachers as a defense against school shootings, and his administration is apparently open to allowing more guns in schools period. But arming teachers (or placing armed guards in schools) would create other problems—would you prepare every teacher to engage in a firefight? If you did, would you have to (or be pressured to) pay them better? Would you have to be more careful to screen teachers given the expectation that they would be armed? Would cash-strapped towns and cities be expected to provide the weapons to their schools? What if an armed teacher or school resource officer killed a student by mistake? And of course armed guards can't stop all school shootings—they didn't stop Columbine, after all.
Trump doesn't seem prepared to even begin to grapple with what it would mean to put more guns in schools. Republican legislators, for all their concerns about mental health, have never moved to do anything about it. And though Trump promised to support the Florida survivors and families affected by the shooting, he'll likely ignore them if, like other relatives of mass shooting victims, they call for gun control (some already have).
The cynical response to Trump's words is that they are just an excuse to avoid the problem of Americans being gunned down for no reason week after week, and that the Republican Party as a whole simply doesn't care much or at all about gun violence. And it's very difficult not to be cynical after watching so many mass shootings in such a short time: By one count, there have been more than 1,600 since the shooting at Sandy Hook in December 2012, and according to the New York Times, three of the ten deadliest shootings in modern American history took place in the past five months.
As Trump left the podium, a reporter could be heard shouting the obvious questions: "Why does this keep happening in America? Will you do something about guns?"
Trump ignored him, but the answer seems obvious.
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