Andrew Scull: On the response to mass shootings

ScullAmerica’s right-wing politicians have developed a choreographed response to the horrors of mass shootings. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s massacre of the innocents, President Trump stuck resolutely to the script. Incredibly, he managed to avoid even mentioning the taboo word “guns.” In his official statement on this week’s awfulness, he offers prayers for the families of the victims—as though prayers will salve their wounds, or prevent the next outrage of this sort; they now fall thick and fast upon us. And he spouted banalities: “No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school.” That, of course, was teleprompter Trump. The real Trump, as always, had surfaced hours earlier on Twitter. How had such a tragedy come to pass?  On cue, we get the canned answer: the issue was mental health: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed.”  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a mental health problem don’t you see, not a gun problem.

Let us set aside the crass hypocrisy of those who have spent so much time attempting to destroy access to health care (including mental health care) for tens of millions of people bleating about the need to provide treatment for mental illness. Let us ignore the fact that President Trump, with a stroke of a pen, set aside regulations that made it a little more difficult for “deranged” people to obtain firearms. They have Second Amendment rights too, or so it would seem. Let us overlook the fact that in at least two of the recent mass shootings, the now-dead were worshipping the very deity their survivors and the rest of us are invited to pray to when they were massacred. Let us leave all of that out of account. Do we really just have a mental health problem here, and would addressing that problem make a dent in the rash of mass killings?

Merely to pose the question is to suggest how fatuous this whole approach is. Pretend for a moment that all violence of this sort is the product of mental illness, not, as is often the case, the actions of evil, angry, or viciously prejudiced souls. Is there the least prospect that any conceivable investment in mental health care could anticipate and forestall gun massacres? Of course not. Nowhere in recorded history, on no continent, in no country, in no century, has any society succeeded in eliminating or even effectively addressing serious forms of mental illness. Improving the lot of those with serious mental illness is a highly desirable goal. Leaving the mentally disturbed to roam or rot on our sidewalks and in our “welfare” hotels, or using a revolving door to move them in and out of jail—the central elements of current mental health “policy”—constitutes a national disgrace. But alleviating that set of problems (as unlikely as that seems in the contemporary political climate) will have zero effect on gun violence and mass shootings.

Mental illness is a scourge that afflicts all civilized societies. The Bible tells us, “The poor ye shall always have with you.”  The same, sadly, is true of mental illness. Mental distress and disturbance constitute one of the most profound sources of human suffering, and simultaneously constitute one of the most serious challenges of both a symbolic and practical sort to the integrity of the social fabric. Whether one looks to classical Greece and Rome, to ancient Palestine or the Islamic civilization that ruled much of the Mediterranean for centuries, to the successive Chinese empires or to feudal and early modern Europe, everywhere people have wrestled with the problem of insanity, and with the need to take steps to protect themselves against the depredations of the minority of the seriously mentally ill people who pose serious threats of violence. None of these societies, or many more I could mention, ever saw the levels of carnage we Americans now accept as routine and inevitable.

Mental illness is an immutable feature of human existence. Its association with mass slaughter most assuredly has not been. Our ancestors were not so naïve as to deny that madness was associated with violence. The mentally ill, in the midst of their delusions, hallucinations, and fury were sometimes capable of horrific acts: consider the portrait in Greek myth of Heracles dashing out the brains of his children, in his madness thinking them the offspring of his mortal enemy Euryththeus; Lucia di Lammermoor stabbing her husband on their wedding night; or Zola’s anti-hero of La Bete humaine, Jacques Lantier, driven by passions that escape the control of his reason, raping and killing the object of his desire: these and other fictional representations linking mental illness to animality and violence are plausible to those encountering them precisely because they match the assumptions and experience of the audiences toward whom they are directed. And real-life maddened murderers were to be found in all cultures across historical time. Such murders were one of the known possible consequences of a descent into insanity. But repeated episodes of mass killing by deranged individuals, occurring as a matter of routine?  Nowhere in the historical record can precursors of the contemporary American experience be found. It is long past time to stop blaming an immutable feature of human culture—severe mental illness—for routine acts of deadly violence that are instead the produce of a resolute refusal to face the consequences of unbridled access to a deadly form of modern technology.

Claims that the mowing down of unarmed innocents is a mental health problem cannot explain why, in that event, such massacres are exceedingly rare elsewhere in the contemporary world, while they are now routine in the United States. Mental illness, as I have stressed, is a universal feature of human existence. Mass shootings are not. Australia and Britain (to take but two examples) found themselves in the not-too-distant past having to cope with horrendous mass killings that involved guns. Both responded with sensible gun control policies, and have been largely spared a repetition of the horrors routinely visited upon innocent Americans. Our society’s “rational” response, by contrast, is to rush out and buy more guns, inflating the profits of those who profit from these deaths, and ensuring more episodes of mass murder.

The problem in the United States is not crazy people. It is crazy gun laws.

Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Masters of Bedlam: The Transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade and Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine.