The National Rifle Association did something unusual this past week: It endorsed more regulation of firearms.
The organization, usually pilloried as the root of all evil after mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, asked the federal government to “immediately review” whether bump stocks, which the Las Vegas gunman reportedly used, comply with current law. The NRA said it “believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
This announcement is unlikely to sate the appetite of those who want more stringent gun control. But reaching political consensus on anything more is an uphill battle.
That’s why I was intrigued by a survey The New York Times conducted in January (which I came across only this past week) about possible measures to curb gun deaths. It compared those measures’ popularity to experts’ opinions of their effectiveness. It also broke down the expert opinion into a couple of sub-groups: academics who generally oppose more gun control, and law-enforcement professionals.
As you might expect, the first group differed significantly from their peers who favor gun control. But presumably, gun-rights advocates would take their views, and those of law enforcement, more seriously. Endorsements by those two groups might point toward policies that have a real chance of becoming law.
The Times also noted what all the surveyed experts thought would work specifically to curb mass shootings. Finally, it included what President Donald Trump has said he would support.
Out of 29 ideas, just one won approval from the experts at large, the anti-gun control experts, law enforcement and the president: expanding mental health treatment. (Interestingly, among those four, only law enforcement favored barring gun sales to the mentally ill; one wonders if a policy with due process protections, such as the one Georgia senators approved this year, might alleviate some concerns.)
More treatment wouldn’t be a panacea. So far there is no indication the Las Vegas gunman was diagnosed with a mental disorder, although the shooters in Newtown, Aurora and Virginia Tech all had a history of mental illness, and the Tucson shooter later was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. But as a starting point, we could do a lot worse.
We could also do a lot easier, which may be the main reason little has been done on this front. If we need motivation to tackle such a thorny and far-reaching problem, we can find it beyond the issue of violence.
Clearly, mental illness is at the heart of many suicides. It’s also one of the leading problems among the chronically homeless: In 2014, the Treatment Advocacy Center estimated one-third of America’s homeless suffered from untreated, serious mental illnesses. The knock-on effects reach into our jails, where many homeless Americans wind up, and our hospitals. A constant refrain from Georgia’s struggling rural hospitals is the challenge they face dealing with mentally ill persons who aren’t being treated regularly.
This has been a particular source of shame for Georgia over the years. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 2007 series which revealed scores of unnecessary deaths in the state’s mental hospitals led to a federal investigation and, eventually, a settlement between the state and the Justice Department. Years later, improvement has been marginal.
Answers aren’t simple. What is most needed may be public resolve and insistence on progress.
That’s exactly what so many say, only to lose interest, after these shootings. If we want better, we’ll need to do better.
Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.