We’re going to hear a lot of talk in the next few days about the role of mental health in mass shootings like the one that took place in San Bernardino, California. You may hear about Rep. Tim Murphy’s “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” a piece of legislation that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is promoting as concrete action that can be taken to address gun violence and mass shootings. Don’t be fooled. Guess how many times the bill mentions access to guns, background checks or weapons?
Zero. Watch for Ryan and the Republicans to turn to this bill over the next few days. Understand that the Murphy bill is not a solution to the problems we face when it comes to mass shootings.
Gabe Howard has a good summary of some of the other problems with the bill, but suffice to say the legislation is not a solution to keeping guns out of the wrong hands. Even if it were a more comprehensive bill though, the connection between mental illness and mass shootings isn’t one of cause and effect. As Vox reported after the shooting in Oregon earlier this year, there are other factors that play a much larger role in these incidents:
Jonathan Metzl, a professor of psychiatry, sociology, and medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University, argues that mental illness is often a scapegoat that lets policymakers and the public ignore bigger, more complicated contributors to gun violence. Metzl, who reviewed the research on mass shootings and mental illness in apaper for the American Journal of Public Health, points to studies that show people with mental illness are more likely to be victims — not perpetrators — of violence, and that very few violent acts — about 3 to 5 percent — are carried out by the mentally ill. And while mental illness can be a contributor to some violent behaviors, other factors — such as substance abuse, poverty, history of violence, and access to guns — are much stronger predictors of violence and shootings.
Better mental health care has a part to play in any solution, but we cannot address mass shootings in this country without talking about guns, which the Murphy bill doesn’t do.
As Gabe Howard makes clear in his review of the bill, at it’s heart the Murphy bill makes it easier for family members to get a loved one into treatment. But the reality is very few of these people are actually threats to public safety. Even if someone is deemed to be a threat to others, the Murphy bill does next to nothing to make sure that person would end up being flagged in a background check if they wanted to buy a gun six months later.
Here’s a great breakdown of the background check system and it’s flaws:
NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] also consults medical records submitted by each state. According to a 2013 congressional report, these records can show whether someone has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” by a “court, board, commission, or other lawful authority,” or has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution — both circumstances would bar someone from purchasing a firearm. However, federal law does not require states to forward mental health records to NICS, and some states are resistant, citing privacy laws. [Emphasis added- Paul]
The Murphy bill doesn’t do anything to change this. It is an empty promise. Don’t be fooled.
The only way to address mental health and mass shootings is through a bill that includes comprehensive gun control measures.