File Photo: Rhino 500 handguns are on display at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images, File

The trouble with the GOP’s focus on mental health and guns

In recent years, in the immediate aftermath of high-profile mass shootings, Republicans tend to talk about new policies related to mental health. In response to the latest slayings, we’re hearing many of the same familiar refrains.

Here, for example, was Donald Trump’s unscripted comments to reporters yesterday afternoon:

“[T]his is also a mental illness problem. If you look at both of these cases, this is mental illness. These are people – really, people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.”

And here’s how the president followed up on the point this morning, reading scripted comments:

“[W]e 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 treatment, but, when necessary, involuntary confinement.”

There are all kinds of relevant angles to comments like these, which seemed to refer to general policy preferences, not specific legislation. For example, the idea of imposing “involuntary confinement” on the mentally ill is the sort of approach that easily could be abused and applied too broadly. Policymakers would have to deal with the challenges with great caution and care.

But hanging overhead is a problem that’s tough for GOP officials to explain away: the last time they tackled a policy related to guns and mental health.

As regular readers may recall, one of the very first measures tackled by the Republican-led Congress in 2017 was, of all things, a gun bill.

When an American suffers from a severe mental illness, to the point that he or she receives disability benefits through the Social Security Administration, there are a variety of limits created to help protect that person and his or her interests. These folks cannot, for example, go to a bank to cash a check on their own.

As recently as 2016, they couldn’t buy a gun, either. The Social Security Administration would report the names of those who receive disability benefits due to severe mental illness to the FBI’s background-check system.

At least, that was the policy. Less than a month into the Trump era, Republicans passed a measure to block the Social Security Administration’s reporting policy, keeping the names out of the FBI system, and making it easier for the mentally impaired to buy firearms.

To be sure, the old system had flaws and was the subject of some legitimate criticism. It’s very difficult, for example, for someone to have their names removed from the background-check system once they’re on it.

But the GOP measure made no real effort at reform. It was more of a blunt object than a scalpel.

And two years later, it’s a political headache, too. The Republicans talking today about the mentally impaired having access to guns are the same Republicans who voted to expand gun access for the mentally impaired.

Gun Policy and Mental Health

The trouble with the GOP's focus on mental health and guns