I’ve been dwelling on the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio (during the weekend of August 3 and 4, 2019). There’s a tendency in some circles to call mass murderers mentally ill. Such was the judgment of U.S. President Donald Trump:
“If you look at both of these cases, this is mental illness…. These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”
(Remarks delivered Monday morning, August 5, 2019.)
However, many or most terrorists and mass murderers aren’t mentally ill in the medical sense and probably not in the legal sense either. Besides this, mental illness does not predict violence of any sort.
These two mass murderers planned their attacks. The El Paso shooter drove across Texas. He published a screed to explain his actions. Both shooters already had their weapons at the ready. One probably modified his legally acquired gun. These actions are generally not what mentally ill people can do.
It does seem that the shooter in Dayton may have had psychiatric issues. He was allegedly taking illicit drugs before the shooting. In fact, taking drugs could have been evidence that he knew the difference between right and wrong and that he needed to numb himself before he could commit the shootings.
Regardless, the El Paso shooter showed no signs of mental illness. He made a moral decision.
Mr. Trump continued:
“We must recognize that the Internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts.”
The President continued to castigate the Internet and social media:
“The Internet likewise is used for human trafficking, illegal drug distribution, and so many other heinous crimes. The perils of the Internet and social media cannot be ignored and they will not be ignored.”
Trump’s speech then dwelt upon potential solutions, including dealing with mental illness, social media and violent video games. Supposedly, “troubled youth surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
First, he called on the Department of Justice to act on early warning signs, to develop Internet tools to detect mass shooters before they strike. However, there’s no evidence that either shooter could have been detected. The El Paso shooter only published his screed shortly before his attack.
“Second, we must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace…. Each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.”
A worthy goal “to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.” But, I’m not aware that playing violent video games predicts acts of violence. It’s so easy to blame violent videos.
The President continued:
“Third, we must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get mental health treatment, even if necessary, involuntary confinement…. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”
There’s a difference between being distressed and being mentally disturbed in the medical sense. Going through a psychological crisis is not mental illness. If there is a mental health crisis here, the sufferer is likely to be depressed and suicidal. Depression is deadly, and depression and guns don’t go together. Depression pulls the trigger. And often hatred pulls the trigger (so to speak), as hatred pulled on the shooters who pulled triggers to murder in Dayton and El Paso.
In later remarks on Wednesday, August 7, Mr. Trump said,
“These are sick people; these are really people who are mentally ill, who are disturbed. It’s a mental problem…. They’re mentally unstable.”
But, mental instability is not a diagnosis of mental illness. Again, the President has no evidence that mass shooters are sick in the colloquial sense of mentally ill. Furthermore, his new push for involuntary confinement is draconian. Confinement is not care. And people in straightforward distress don’t benefit from confinement.
If anything, the President is talking about confining me. When I was 25 years old, I was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. I’ve received effective treatment including medication, and, typical of other sufferers, I’ve never been violent.
Finally, the President suggested:
“Fourth, the Department of Justice sees to it that those who pose a great risk to public safety do not have access to guns.”
Laws to take guns away with due process are popularly called “red flag laws.” More properly, they are known as extreme risk protection orders.
So-called red-flag laws could allow family members to request that judges temporarily block individuals who are mentally ill or may pose a risk to themselves or others from having a firearm.
Hopefully, guns would be taken away from individuals who are suicidally depressed. Unfortunately, family members and friends don’t see suicidal intentions. So many suicides don’t usually cry out for help either.
And Mr. Trump added that, “mass murderers and hate crimes receive the death penalty.” (The awkward wording is his.) Never mind that they receive the death penalty in some states already. And never mind that there’s no evidence that the death penalty deters murder.
The President called for real bipartisan solutions to make America “safer and better for all.” But, he didn’t call for better background checks, though Not that these would help prevent guns from falling into the hands of mass shooters. The Dayton and El Paso shooters had never had serious brushes with the law.
The only part of the President’s remarks I agreed with is when he said,
“Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.”
I firmly believe that hatred kills people, both the hater and the hated, but not mental illness or video games. Hatred has become an evil contagion.
Mass shootings are truly a “monstrous evil” – Mr. Trump’s words.
To view the President’s remarks after the mass murder go to his Twitter channel.
(Tweets may be archived: https://t.co/IURuMIrzxb)
Some of the President’s remarks are available in the press secretary’s Twitter feed.