By Jennifer Keohane
Because the National Communication Association conference is coming up later this week, pulling many of us away from classes and research, I’m not going to jump into a new topic for this month’s blog post. Instead, I want to provide more evidence for the claims that I made about a month ago in my post about hypocrisy related to gun violence.
Specifically, I argued that even though liberal think tanks and research groups continually try to smear U.S. politicians for taking money from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and then sending “thoughts and prayers” when a mass shooting occurs, these charges of hypocrisy don’t seem to stick. And they certainly haven’t resulted in common sense gun control policies.
One of the reasons for this, I suggested, is the link right-leaning politicians have forged between mass shootings and mental illness, obfuscating the role of guns in the whole ordeal. I’m not the first to suggest that some politicians use mental illness as a way to take the focus off of gun control. But the point stands.
What I do want to point out is that this week, in the wake of yet another mass shooting, this time in a small-town Texas church, the same discourse continued to circulate. (The Onion also re-circulated its now viral headline after the November shooting which killed 26 and wounded 20.)
Once again, we saw an outpouring of prayers on Twitter, and scathing responses from gun control advocates snapping that “these folks don’t need more prayers—they were in church when they were shot.”
President Donald Trump during his trip to Asia made remarks on the shooting in Texas that confirms the re-framing of mass shootings as about mental illness and not gun access. At a press briefing while in Japan, Trump claimed, “Mental health is your problem here,” and called the shooter “a very deranged individual.” Trump went on in the same speech to reject guns as the problem, saying “we could go into [gun control], but it’s a little bit too soon.” “This isn’t a guns situation,” he noted. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”
I don’t want to wholly dismiss the role that mental illness can play in shootings. And it does seem like in this case, there were some tangible mistakes made that allowed the shooter to get guns. Overall, though, research shows less than 5% of shooters have a diagnosable mental illness. Moreover, there’s very real hypocrisy insofar as Republican lawmakers continually try to limit access to health care, necessary to provide mental health treatments. And once again, these charges fail to stick.
As a scholar of communication, I deeply believe that the way that we talk about our world influences how we act in it. It matters that the conversation has shifted away from gun availability and toward mental health because how we define problems conditions what solutions we see as reasonable. And this discursive shift belies the evidence that the big problem in the United States is availability of guns, especially military-style assault rifles.
As one writer for Vox explained, “It’s the guns, stupid.”