Opinion: Are mass shootings a ‘mental health problem?”

2:15 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 Opinion
KSAT via AP
Emergency personnel respond to a fatal shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.

“This isn’t a guns situation,” President Trump said after the horrific slaughter in a rural Texas church. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level.”

In one sense, that’s true. This long, depressing string of mass shootings should force us to acknowledge that there must be a cold romance in this evil, in evil so unthinkable and outrageous that a dangerous few will be drawn to commit it, should the means be available.

One walks into a quiet country church during worship hour, dressed in black tactical gear and armed with an assault weapon, to mow down parishioners as young as 18 months. Another walks into church Bible study to kill black people, another into a Connecticut elementary school to slaughter grade-schoolers; yet another into a Vegas hotel to set up a sniper’s nest in the 32nd floor, looking down upon tens of thousands of people and then killing and wounding more than 500 in a matter of minutes ….

Yes, there is undoubtedly a mental-health component to the problem.

However, that framing is also misleading. It implies that if it’s a mental-health problem, then there must be a mental health solution. And even a cursory attempt to think through the problem tells us that there is not. The idea that we are somehow going to pre-identify these people, that once they’re identified we’re going to deny them access to weapons of mass destruction in a society that is awash in such tools — it’s nonsense. The argument that this is a mental-health problem is an argument for doing nothing, for simply accepting this carnage as a fact of modern life.

Personally, I do not accept that.

If the indiscriminate slaughter of large numbers of people has become a means of expression for those drawn to evil, then let’s address the tools they use to make these fantasies real, that partly inspire them to do so. I firmly believe that the immense, military-grade firepower now available at the pull of a trigger finger is itself part of the intoxication, part of the power that fuels this madness. It offers an exhilaration among those predisposed to such evil that firearms lethal on a less-grand scale do not.

Historians of mankind as a tool-making species speak of something called the “technological imperative.” Basically, the imperative argues that if a tool gives human beings the power to do something, somebody will do it. We will drive and text while driving, even if it’s not smart, because we can. We will rearrange our own genetic code, because we can; we will blow each other up with nuclear weapons, because we can. And if the power to kill large numbers of people in a short amount of time is placed in enough hands? Inevitably, that power will be used.

In most cases, we have learned to erect legal and practical barricades to the abuse of machines and tools, to contain the technological imperative. So it seems madness to suggest that there must be one form of machine, one technology, that is exempt from such regulation, especially when the primary function of that particular machine is to kill our fellow man.

Why choose that one form of technology to be exalted, to be placed above all others? That is not what the Second Amendment requires of us, not as it was designed by the Founders and not as the courts have interpreted it. These high-capacity assault weapons are not constitutionally protected weapons of self-defense, and they aren’t being used for that purpose, yet we do nothing?

In that sense, maybe this really is “a mental health problem at the highest level.”

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