Transforming the Problem into the Solution


"We have a lot of mental health problems in our country — as do other countries — but this isn't a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. But, fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction." - President Trump

"We've had shootings at churches, you know, forever. It's going to happen again. And so, we need people in churches – either professional security or at least arming some of the parishioners or the congregation – so that they can respond, when something like this happens again...All I can say is in Texas at least we have the opportunity to have conceal carry.  And so ... there's always the opportunity that gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people." – Attorney General Ken Paxton

“This community is … pro-Second Amendment, and we are for law-abiding citizens owning guns. In a situation like this, it could have prevented a lot more devastation.” – Karen Comeaux, resident of Sutherland Springs.

“I don’t believe gun control is the answer. I can tell you this: don’t come to another church in South Texas and try to shoot somebody, because everybody’s gonna be armed.” – Robert Kunz, resident of Sutherland Springs.

(Emphases added.)

As the grim particulars of the Sutherland Springs shooting have become known in the days since the incident, the fact that a bystander armed with a rifle of his own shot the perpetrator and gave chase crucially transforms the terrain of the political interpretation of the shootings. The presence of an armed citizen "shooting in the opposite direction," as President Donald Trump put it hours after the killings, activates partisan attitudes about guns in Texas that can be effectively mobilized by advocates and political leaders to stifle discussion of adding even the most mild restrictions on access to, or ownership, of guns. The trope that the best antidote to gun violence by bad (or even sick) people is good people with guns resonates sufficiently with the right audience of Republicans so as to effectively seal off discussions outside the status quo.

Broadly speaking, this "Good Guy with a Gun" approach to preventing mass shootings springs from hybrid roots that include diffuse but questionable readings of history projected onto the present by political leaders, decisively debunked social science research, and, of course, a non-trivial but also non-representative set of anecdotes. If the body of evidence and the debates can seem tangled, the essence of the proposition on offer is simple: the best thing for stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  

More specifically, faith in the efficacy of packing self-protection is evident in the attitudes of Texas Republicans. In the October 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, we asked, "If more people carried guns, do you think the United States would be safer, less safe, or would it have no impact on safety?" Overall, 38 percent of Texas voters said the U.S. would be safer while 41 percent said it would be less safe. Beneath this close division in attitudes there are sharp partisan differences: 66 percent of Republicans said it would make the U.S. safer, while 75 percent of Democrats said it would make the U.S. less safe. Among Tea Party identifiers, who helped drive the loosening of gun restrictions, including the push to allow open carry in the Texas Legislature in 2015, 85 percent said it would make the U.S. safer.

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Less safe75%31%13%
No impact14%15%14%
Don't know/no opinion6%10%7%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Less safe76%16%8%
No impact14%19%4%
Don't know/no opinion6%7%3%

The fact that the perpetrator in Sutherland Springs may have been deflected (though not, sadly enough, thwarted) by an armed bystander leads us to expect this line of response to supplement, if not entirely supplant, the recourse to mental health in long-term responses to the latest episode. The increasingly frequent tendency to blame the mental health of the assailant was evident in the early responses to the most recent Texas shooting from several sources, most notably President Donald Trump. Jim Henson wrote about this routine earlier this week, we both wrote about it earlier this year in response to the Las Vegas massacre, and also in 2015 after a gunman killed three and injured nine in a shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This emphasis on mental health has obvious political benefits: it fits into people's, and especially Republicans', preconceptions about the causes of mass shootings while remaining faithful to the fact that GOP voters are generally opposed to stricter gun control laws – especially when mobilized.

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Failures of the mental health system16%33%28%
Current gun laws43%12%4%
Drug use1%0%3%
Violence in popular culture1%7%9%
Spread of extremist points of view on the internet12%9%16%
Insufficient security at public buildings6%7%4%
Inflamatory language from political commentators3%6%4%
Unstable family situations3%4%8%
Media attention given to perpetrators5%11%15%
Don't know/no opinion9%11%9%

The days since the Texas incident have revealed an expanding set of set of candidates to assign pride of place in explaining this atrocity, and in turn, the range of potential solutions. The failure of the Air Force to report the shooter's conviction and discharge introduce the narratives of inadequate enforcement of existing laws and bureaucratic failure, while his apparent escape from a military mental institutions again adds mental health care to that narrative. The correlation of mass shootings and domestic violence looms large, and seemed to be seized on by some media outlets as a clear alternative to the shooter's apparent conversion to atheism (per his social media postings). All of this and more have clouded the usual default focus on mental health policy if we're to talk about doing something about the miserable virulence of these events.  

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Less safe41%
No impact14%
Don't know/no opinion7%

This "something," however, would require new gun control laws or if nothing else, stricter enforcement of existing ones – and at any rate, the most recent policy action in this area was a bill President Trump signed earlier this year that makes it easier for people with a history of mental health to obtain guns, the president's statements from Japan notwithstanding.“One individual demonstrated bravery and courage. We need to be celebrating that bravery and courage.” 

Ironically, this incident highlights the potential limits of falling back on mental health as a stalling or diversionary tactic, especially in a political environment in which any questioning of the status quo can lead to election-year retribution by the forces who operate on the principle of Second Amendment absolutism. The operative effect of invoking mental health policy as an alternative to modifying gun laws has been to deflect action until public interest and attention drifts to another subject. It doesn't take long – in our October poll, which went in the field less than a week after the Las Vegas shootings, only six percent of Texans thought gun violence was the most important problem facing the country. But the frequency and visibility of mass shootings, in conjunction with attitudes pointing to mental health as a possible policy solution (or at least focus), could eventually contribute to calls for solutions that might involve more thorough screening of gun purchases – which are anathema to Second Amendment proponents. 

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Political corruption/leadership14%
Health care7%
Moral decline7%
National security/terrorism7%
Gun control/gun violence6%

Herein lies the political value in the current moment of the good guy with a gun narrative: it transforms the problem into its solution, even as it reduces the chances of backsliding into any discussion of regulating gun ownership. Any discussion of curtailing gun rights will be swiftly, and easily, met with a simple retort, "but what would have happened if that bystander didn't have his rifle?" In essence, how much worse would this have been if there hadn't been a good guy with a gun? So while this tragedy may lead some Texas Democrats and liberals here and elsewhere to think that the mass murder in Sutherland Springs might tilt the state's conversation on guns and gun ownership, the opposite is more likely: given an armed civilian returning fire (even if after the murder of 26), expect the narrative of a good guy with a gun to be the one that drowns out discussion of even relatively minor adjustments to gun ownership practices – even those that might fit within the mental health narrative.