They Blame Mass Shootings on Mental Issues, but Killed Mental Health Coverage?

The GOP’s stance on mental health care seems a bit schizophrenic these days. After a wave of mass shootings shook our country over the last few years, Republican lawmakers repeatedly shifted the conversation from gun control to mental health care as a path forward. But when the party presented its health care bill a few months ago, it reduced mental health care access for over 1 million Americans.

Last year, House Speaker Paul Ryan was saying on “CBS This Morning”:

“What we have seen — and a common theme among many of these mass shootings — is a theme of mental illness. And we need to fix our mental illness laws, our policies. They’re outdated. And that is something that we are working on right now.”

This is actually a mischaracterization — only 3%-5% of violent acts “can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators of them.

But in spite of this data, the GOP blamed mental illness for violent attacks over and over again. “Guns, no guns, doesn’t matter,” said then-presidential candidate Donald Trump on “Meet the Press.” “You have people that are mentally ill and they’re going to come through the cracks and they’re going to do things that people will not even believe are possible.”

In this July 20, 2014 photo, guns are displayed for sale at Dragonman's, an arms seller east of Colorado Springs, Colo. When Colorado lawmakers expanded background checks on firearms last year, they were expecting a huge increase. But the actual number the first 12 months of the law is far lower than projected, according to an analysis of state data by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

This unflinching focus on mental illness as the driver of gun violence actually led to strides in mental health care reform that were applauded on both sides of the aisle. While Republicans pursued reform as a means to end violence, Democrats disagreed on the stigmatization of the mentally ill but agreed on the need for better programs. In December, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, dubbed “the most significant mental health care legislation in 20 years.” The act exemplified a rare case of politicians working across party lines to move the nation forward, and passed with an overwhelming majority of votes.

That unity was short-lived. President Trump’s proposed health care bill emerged as one of the most divisive issues in an administration already plagued with scandal. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, one of the authors of last year’s mental health act, called the bill a “dumpster fire that everyone should hate,” and “nearly all of the country’s largest mental health groups have lined up against the legislation in its current form,” reports Politico.

The bill would phase out Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, leaving 1.2 million Americans with severe mental illness and substance addiction vulnerable. Democrats and moderate Republicans alike spoke out against this blow to mental health coverage. “Reform should not come at the cost of disruption in access to health care for our country’s most vulnerable and sickest individuals,” said a coalition of Republican senators.

Another major flaw in the GOP’s mental illness blame game is their unwillingness to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to violence prevention. As we previously reported, the Trump administration scrapped an Obama-era rule requiring the Social Security Administration to share data with handgun sellers on people receiving mental health services from the government. The rule would have applied to some 75,000 people receiving treatment for mental illness so debilitating it makes them unable to hold down a job or manage their own finances. If mental illness truly is a key driver in incidents of mass violence, as Paul Ryan contends, wouldn’t a very simple first step be to block gun sales to individuals with serious mental illness?

He admitted as much himself in 2015: “A lot of these people are getting guns who are mentally unstable, who should not be getting guns,” Ryan said. “And this is a gap in our laws that we feel needs to be filled.” We will believe in the GOP’s promises to reduce gun violence when we see meaningful action, not just soundbites.

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