The Florida school shooting that left 17 people dead has reopened a debate about whether a focus on mental health is the answer to gun violence.
Both President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE (R-Wis.) pointed to mental health reforms as a solution following the shooting.
“We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools, and tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” Trump said in his first public comments about the latest mass shooting in the United States.
Democrats accused the GOP of misdirecting the national conversation, arguing that while mental health might be part of the solution, the focus must be on gun control.
“We should fix our mental health system, but we can’t let the gun lobby get away with suggesting that mental health is the problem,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyExpats plead with US to deliver COVID-19 vaccines Growing number of Democrats endorse abolishing debt limit altogether Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement.
“Improving mental health treatment will help a lot of people and it’s the right thing to do. But the U.S. has the highest rates of gun deaths – not because Americans have higher rates of mental illness than the rest of the world, but because it’s so easy for people to get their hands on deadly weapons.”
Ryan pointed to a 2016 mental health measure passed by Congress as one way in which Republicans have responded to mass shootings.
“Look, we passed mental health legislation two years ago because of the underlying mental health problems that were behind these shootings,” Ryan told reporters on Thursday.
But that law does not focus on the issue of guns and mental health, and would instead create new grant programs and install an assistant secretary for mental health.
Now that the bill has been signed into law, Ryan says it needs to be implemented.
“That legislation is now just taking place,” he said this week. “That legislation is now being implemented.”
Democrats say that bill will do little to reduce the epidemic of mass shooting, and that tougher action is needed on gun control.
“Yes, it’s about guns,” Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedySupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Warren says she'll run for reelection to Senate Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE III (D-Mass.), who has also been vocal on expanding mental health care, told The Hill on Friday.
He said that expanding mental health care is a good idea in addition to gun control, saying it “sure couldn’t hurt” in stopping mass shootings. But he argued Republicans are disingenuous even in their focus on mental health, pointing to the impact of proposed Medicaid cuts in ObamaCare repeal legislation.
“It’s outrageous,” Kennedy said, coming from “a party that just months ago tried to cut $800 billion out of the largest payer of mental health care in the country.”
There is at least some talk of bipartisan action. There is a measure supported by both parties that deals directly with the link between mental health and guns, through strengthening reporting to the national background check system. Ryan this week pointed to that measure, which passed the House in December. But House GOP leaders combined it with a bill to allow the use of concealed carry permits across state lines, which was fiercely opposed by Democrats and is an obstacle to Senate passage.
Mental health advocates said that mental health issues are certainly part of the picture that should be considered following a mass shooting, but that a focus on that alone is far from enough.
Advocates say that many mass shooters are not mentally ill, and that looking at a person’s criminal background and history of domestic violence are often a better focus than mental illness. And they pointed to solutions that directly keep guns out of people’s hands, not just those that improve treatment of mental illness in general.
Mental health “should be part of the examination and, if indicated, part of the solution, but not the whole solution,” said Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
He said one part of the solution should be “gun violence restraining orders,” which allow a court to order guns to be taken away from someone who poses a danger to themselves or others. Only a handful of states currently allow for that action, he said.
Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America, pointed to improving the background check system to catch people with violent histories, which he noted is not the same as mental illness.
“There is some overlap here but it’s not as much of an overlap as people think there is,” Gionfriddo said of violence and mental illness.
The mental health law from 2016 has some provisions that “could be helpful” indirectly in preventing mass shootings, Honberg said, but noted they are “modest” and far from the whole solution.
He added, though, that if pointing to mental health reforms is not just a political “knee-jerk response” to shootings, then that has the potential to be helpful.
“Asking questions about how we can do a better job of providing people with mental health services is not a bad thing to have happen,” he said.