The shooting on Oct. 1 in Oregon has been met with a call for reform of the United States’ mental health system by multiple Republican presidential candidates. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE said that “it sounds like another mental health problem,” Ben Carson said that the issue centered around the “mentality of the people,” and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results GOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics MORE called the matter a “serious societal issue,” while noting the possibility of mental health issues playing a role in violence. However, television personalities like John Oliver have doubted the Republicans’ sincerity in pursuing mental health reform, especially that regarding gun violence. Indeed, the record and policy proposals of most leading Republicans indicate  their interest in mental health is more of an excuse to not talk about gun control than a genuine effort to develop nuanced systems that reduce the federal budget and protect the safety of the public.

Notwithstanding the serious issues with Donald Trump’s position paper on civilian firearms, Trump ironically appears to have identified the most significant nuances in public policy on mental health and guns. He notes that in spite of the presence of a national background check system, many states fail to put criminal and mental health records into the system. Indeed, according to a Government Accountability Office report, the million mental health records submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) from 2004 to 2011 have reflected largely only the efforts of 12 states. Nearly more than half of all states have increased the number of mental health records by fewer than 100.


This means that because of state laws hindering the federal cataloging of mental health records, federal regulations on mental health and gun control remain grossly ineffective in a great majority of U.S. states. But Trump’s half-hearted exploration of this matter falls flat on its policy prescription, as it merely calls for the “fix(ing) of the system we have and make it work as intended.” At no point has he ever discussed the ramifications of his “policy proposal.” So long as state HIPAA laws hinder the federal system, a great expansion of federal power over state gun control systems would be needed to enforce our government’s laws. This runs contrarily to Trump’s rhetoric, as he says in broad, generic terms, that we don’t need to expand the system we have.

Furthermore, some states like South Carolina, the state of the terrorist attack on a Charleston church on June 17, have even repealed regulations requiring identification for pistol purchases. There are numerous other loopholes in states like South Carolina that allow buyers to circumvent background checks. This, and other failures of states to provide adequate measures to enforce federal regulations, is at odds with Trump’s supposedly “common sense” proposals, since they ignore the need for the expansion of federal power or federal legislation to enforce Trump’s gun control schemes.

Even given the policy analysis failures of Trump’s positions, other leading Republican contenders for the presidency are far more clearly referring to mental health as an excuse to dodge gun control rather than develop a functional system.

Carson has barely demonstrated any knowledge on the policy issues of national background checks, with what little discussion he devotes to the topic being focused on platitudes that have little relevance to legislative issues of the Congress or the presidency. No discussion is devoted to mental health in his policy position web pages for healthcare and gun control. If anything, his rhetoric hardening his refusal to “weaken the Second Amendment” would make his positions anathema to mental health and firearm reform, given gun rights groups’ opposition to national background checks in spite of widespread public approval.

Much of the same has been seen among the remaining leaders in the race. Jeb Bush’s pitiful “stuff happens” response is little more than him closing his eyes and hoping that it all goes away. Carly Fiorina’s talk on mental health has largely related to elderly diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that do not play as significant a role in mass shootings. Even in such discussions, she’s demonstrated little awareness of the fact that some federal programs supporting treatment for mental illnesses may pay for themselves. Instead, she’s called for across-the-board cuts to force accountability. Despite her experience in the corporate world, she’s merely paying lip service to the hackneyed clichés on “programs that work”, without demonstrating any awareness on exactly which programs work.

The Republican Party’s established platform may not even permit any significant reform to the mental health system. Their politicians have repeatedly engaged in calamitous grandstanding against programs that support the expansion of Medicaid reimbursements, a key problem, among many others, identified by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the fight for better treatments.

The Oregon shooting has helped to reignite the discussion on the call for mental health reform on both sides of the aisle. It’s a discussion that is long overdue, but without serious policy proposals from those who helped start the discussion—Republican politicians like Trump, Carson, Fiorina, and Bush—federal reform will go nowhere. Unfortunately, the Republican presidential candidates this year are acting like children in philosophy class—their talk on public policy has been limited to rudimentary discussions and has demonstrated a very limited understanding of the presidency’s required readings of Government Accountability Office reports, scientific papers, and Supreme Court cases.

Doanvo is a research assistant at the Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict.