Public Opinion in Texas and the Redirect to Mental Health in the Wake of Another Mass Shooting

The cycle of initial shock and rote meta-politics that we’ve come to expect in the immediate aftermath of high-profile mass shootings in the United States has now moved on to the phase of political maneuvering over gun policy that takes place amidst the unpacking of the killer’s life.  At the intersection of these two storylines, attitudes about the causes of mass shootings inform both the political debate and efforts by the news media, policy makers, and the public to understand and arrive at responses to incidents like the attack in Las Vegas.

The pattern of partisan responses to questions about mass killings – according to data collected in a 2015 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll – illuminate both the seemingly inevitable inaction on even having a serious institutional discussion of new gun restrictions, as well as the increasingly common alternative emphasis on mental health policy (as seen in the response of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan this week, among many others). The focus on mental health care as a means to prevent mass shootings has become a set piece of the reaction to incidents like the one in Las Vegas. As was the case with Ryan’s comments, it takes little to no cynicism to see efforts at highlighting mental health as a clear way to direct attention away from visiting the thornier subject of tighter regulation of gun ownership, let alone discussing any limitation on the overall availability of guns. While the direction of this attitude formation is open for debate (top down, or bottom up), the data are clear:  “Failure of the mental health system to identify dangerous individuals" was the factor “most to blame” for mass shootings among the entire sample of Texas voters.

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Mental health system30%
Current gun laws13%
Drug use4%
Violence in popular culture8%
Internet extremism7%
Security at public buildings7%
Inflammatory politlca language3%
Unstable family situations13%
Media attention on perpetrators10%
Don't know/No opinion7%

Drilling down into 2015 poll results, we also find substantial agreement among both Democrats and Republicans that mental health is a factor, so we shouldn't be surprised that elected officials have sought refuge in solemn references to mental health in the wake of shootings which don't provide recourse to the threat of international terrorism.

However, beyond this base level of agreement there were consequential differences between the partisans. Democrats were slightly more likely to assign blame to current gun laws than to failures in the mental health system, making it the most common response among them, albeit by a small share and within the margin of error. But only 2 percent of Republicans blamed gun laws, dead last among the choices provided. A plurality of Republicans opted for the mental health explanation, with significant shares blaming either bad family situations or the attention that the media pays perpetrators.

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Mental health system25%30%34%
Current gun laws28%9%2%
Drug use3%4%4%
Violence in popular culture7%6%9%
Internet extremism8%4%6%
Security at public buildings4%13%7%
Inflammatory politlca language2%1%3%
Unstable family situations9%14%16%
Media attention on perpetrators7%10%12%
Don't know/No opinion6%10%6%

Thus the main difference between partisans, even aside from the predictability of positions on the regulation of gun access, are broadly familiar. Democrats see likely correctable institutional failures in legal regulation and, failing that, a breakdown of the mental health care system. Republicans are more likely to see the failures as individualized, either in terms of mental health or the presence of functional families, or, saving that, the role played by the group the current president has deemed enemies of the state: the news media. Talk about regulating “bumpstocks” notwithstanding, these stark partisan differences help explain the pattern of substantive non-response to mass shootings from Congress and the White House in responding to mass shootings – and why the recourse to mental health provides elected officials with shelter from a much more politically dangerous policy discussion.