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Dolor Sit Amet

The Ballistics of Broken Brains

We prefer to ignore our own ignorance. We all like to know some things, to be recognized for our knowledge, but it’s almost always more valuable to be perceived as knowledgeable than to put in the work to build up real understanding. Just like everywhere else, we pretend. We’ll accept a hastily-applied band-aid as a fix for our wounds of unknowing. Why did that argument happen? We shrug. It is what it is. Why is the world the way that it is? God works in mysterious ways.

It’s no wonder we’re annoyed to tears when children embark on their barrages of endless questioning, “how”ing and “why”ing like a drill through our gray matter — they’re breaking a human norm; we’re supposed to be comfortable with the initial answer, regardless of its quality.

Politicians exploit this tendency all the time. Government is complicated. You wouldn’t understand. The other side’s in the way. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes aggravating. Once a week, when America has its latest mass shooting, it’s depressing as hell.

The Democratic response to mass shootings is gun control. This isn’t a gun control piece. That’s for the rest of the internet to discuss.

This article is about the Republican response to mass shootings, because, whether or not you agree with it, gun control is the Democratic response, and when they say what they want, they mean it. The Republican answer to mass shootings is murkier.

Of course, on the surface, it’s not; it’s crystal clear. Since we’re never too far from America’s latest carnage carnival, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to catch. Reliably, Democrats turn to gun control. Republicans, when they can be convinced to move beyond the inactive public grief phase, argue shootings are a mental health problem.

They’re right, obviously. Happy and mentally well people don’t decide to abruptly cut their prospects short and apply the same brush to the lives of their peers. If reducing access to guns is one strategy, changing the mindset of would-be shooters is certainly just as attractive an option.

It’s not the guns. It’s mental health. So what’s our plan to tackle mental health issues? God works in mysterious ways.

Tackling mental health is possible. Restricting access to guns is possible. But when these massacres make the front page, the Democrats taking aim at the weapons that make them possible write bills. We can argue about whether they would work, we can argue about whether their authors have any faith in their passage. They may be flawed, they may be dead on arrival, but they’re there. The mental health bills are absent. Congress at large proposes remarkably few laws for what’s widely accepted to be a public health crisis. It passes fewer. Bills regarding veterans’ mental health are more plentiful, probably because they’re more palatable, but even those end up providing remarkably little meaningful support. Supporting veterans is as popular short-term as it is untouchably boring long-term.

Republicans’ lack of care for mental health issues is written in bold, but it’s far enough away that you have to squint to see it, and that’s enough. Their messaging serves its purpose. It’s a shield. It deflects attention for just long enough for interest to die out. They don’t even need to explain it. Why write a defense if no one cares enough to attack?

Republicans promote their plans by reassuring constituents that their endgame goal is actually step one of a broader and more complex plan. We can see this in action with both abortion and healthcare: with abortion, they reassure us that options will be open for adoption and childcare and assuage our fears about pregnancies that threaten the mother’s health. These concerns and contingencies don’t need to be written into the bills; they’ll be dealt with in Step Two. We’re expected to have faith with them until we get there. They played their hand on the issue of healthcare during the decade-long fight over the Affordable Care Act, which your awful uncle (and, honestly, you and I) know as Obamacare. Republicans assured Americans repeatedly that their strategy was to repeal and replace the ACA. Whenever they were asked to show a replacement bill they could stand behind, they faltered or promised it later. They need us to have faith. But that faith, if given, will never be rewarded.

Gun control is the fiscally conservative option. Providing mental health care is expensive. It’s hard to imagine a system that does it well enough without having first entirely remodeled the broader health care system around it, because, at the end of the day, America’s mental health failings are a microcosm of our health health failings. We have the best health care institutions in the world and an infrastructure that makes them unaffordable for the majority of Americans. In many cases, this leaves the most vulnerable people unable to access the health care they’re most likely to need. We can beef up our psychiatric wards as much as we want, but if it’s the people most likely to break who can’t access them, our bolstering will have been useless.

Little changes won’t be enough here. We can open tip lines and encourage reporting. We can dispatch mental health response teams to those we suspect of needing aid. We can create programs aimed at providing support and rehabilitation for this class of would-be shooters. But if they continue to exist outside of our present infrastructure, they will go unserved, and our problem will go unfixed. Our healthcare system, and our mental health system, is built for middle class and higher individuals with jobs that offer insurance benefits. For many of them, it won’t be enough. Young people without insurance who don’t go to the doctor as is are not going to be picked up by a system whose only alterations are additional training and in-facility resources.

Of course, we have to remember that I’m deflecting proposals that have not been made, because Republicans don’t actually care about American access to mental health services. Their interest is in keeping their opponents from passing anti-gun legislation. And it works. Their arguments are weak. And they work. Why? Because they’re not for us. They’re for the people who are immediately receptive to them, the people who, when the question “was it the guns that caused this?” is asked, want the answer to be “no”. The route we take to get there is irrelevant.

“It is what it is” isn’t an answer. It’s an active choice to avoid the answer. It’s our way of affirming that whatever we’re talking about is something we don’t need to talk about right now. “God works in mysterious ways” is verbal permission to excuse ourselves from investigating those ways, usually out of fear for the discomfort they might bring. And “it’s not a gun problem, it’s a mental health problem” isn’t an invitation for a discussion on mental health reform, it’s an agreement to shut out the alternative possibility that action on and against guns might solve the issue. The second half of the sentence could be anything. “It’s not a gun problem, it’s a climate change problem”. “It’s not a gun problem, it’s a chemtrail problem”. “It’s not a gun problem, it’s a eucalyptus problem.”. It doesn’t matter. It’s a way to kill the side of the conversation they don’t want to have. And once we’ve moved on to mental health, we’re right where they want us, because they don’t care about that issue.


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