It’s been a week since 31 people were murdered in two mass shootings within 24 hours. Despite numerous differences between the two horrific incidents in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, there was a crucial common denominator: hysterical public reaction.
A few public officials offered tepid platitudes of thoughts and prayers, but then a tipping point on gun violence debates was reached. Dry kindling was collected over the last few weeks, as the president criticized the congressional “Squad,” then Baltimore, and then Elijah Cummings. But the weekend massacres lit the raging bonfire, and politicians and pundits came running with their own cans of kerosene.
I watched Beto O’Rourke rage against Trump the White Supremacist, waving his arms like a makeshift windmill from a dinner theater production of Man of La Mancha. I listened to cable news “journalists” like Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC, who claimed that the president wanted to “exterminate” Latinos (she later apologized). I read as Reza Aslan, a former contributor to CNN, tweeted to the president’s adviser Kellyanne Conway that she was the “depraved evil” that should be “eradicated.” These are just a few examples of the cultural meltdown.
Whenever someone tried to raise the valid issue of mental health, they were silenced with this mantra: The problem is guns and racism, racism and guns. Or, as an educated attorney emailed me, mentally ill people hurt themselves, not others.
Fair. But if the attorney were from this area, she might also remember Sylvia Seegrist and the Springfield Mall shooting, one that — stuck in traffic — I missed by a mere half hour. In 1985, Seegrist, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, stormed the suburban mall and killed three shoppers with a semiautomatic rifle.
It is important to note that people with serious mental illness only commit an estimated 3 percent of violent crimes, and the vast majority aren’t violent. Still, mental health interventions could have made a difference for people like Seegrist and Adam Lanza, the shooter who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yale medical experts had recommended that Lanza receive extensive psychiatric treatment for anxiety and other issues, which he resisted.
Unfortunately, talking about expanding mental health support doesn’t advance the guns-and-racism narrative deployed to make this a partisan issue. Some people want to get all the political mileage they can out of racism/xenophobia/anti-GOP theories on the causes of gun violence, and do so at the expense of the full truth. When you speak the truth, people come after you.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput knows all about that. In his recent column on CatholicPhilly.com, he observed:
“I buried some of the young Columbine victims 20 years ago. I sat with their families, watched them weep, listened to their anger, and saw the human wreckage that gun violence leaves behind. The experience taught me that assault rifles are not a birthright, and the Second Amendment is not a Golden Calf. I support thorough background checks and more restrictive access to guns for anyone seeking to purchase them.
But it also taught me that only a fool can believe that ‘gun control’ will solve the problem of mass violence. The people using the guns in these loathsome incidents are moral agents with twisted hearts.
And the twisting is done by the culture of sexual anarchy, personal excess, political hatreds, intellectual dishonesty, and perverted freedoms that we’ve systematically created over the past half-century.”
Chaput’s comments didn’t sit well with some critics, who took the words “only a fool can believe that gun control will solve the problem of mass violence” out of context to paint Chaput as tone-deaf and heartless. But the point of his comments was that the real problem in society is a complete abandonment of clear moral standards, and our increasing disrespect for human life. Guns are a part of that conversation. So is racism. So is mental illness. So, for that matter, are abortion, euthanasia, the over-sexualization of children, family breakdown, and all of the things Chaput mentions.
But it’s so much easier and effective to just keep chanting the mantra — guns and racism, racism and guns — that caters to those who find their moral polestars on Twitter.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.