Mental illness cannot go out, buy a gun, and shoot up a school. Researchers who study the links between psychological distress and such violent acts — like John Van Dreal, the director of safety and risk management at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon — are very quick to caution those hoping for a purely therapeutic solution that “mental health issues don’t cause school shootings” and “only a tiny, tiny percentage of kids with psychological issues go on to become school shooters.”
Yet on the first night of Democratic presidential debate, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) proposed to end these tragedies using the type of panacea that researchers suggest will prove insufficient.
“Seventy three percent of [school shooters] feel shamed, traumatized or bullied. We need to make sure that these kids feel connected to the school. That means a mental health counselor in every single school in the United States. We need to start playing offense. If our kids are so traumatized they are getting a gun and going into our schools, we’re doing something wrong, too, and we need reform around trauma-based care,” Ryan said.
Mass shootings, especially those that have taken place in schools around the country, have dominated both the headlines and children’s minds in recent years. But this is largely down to the fact that disillusioned, distraught, or otherwise afflicted people maintain the ability to gain access to a gun.
Ryan’s suggestion of increasing the amount of counseling available in schools isn’t a bad idea on its own. Ramping up these resources would certainly afford children a greater opportunity to work through the general anxiety of being a kid, create a safe space to talk about issues at home, and provide a soundboard for relief from the complex emotions of adolescence as they learn cope with the swing from youth to adulthood.
But these efforts are not going to prevent mass shootings. This goal requires gun laws that make sense, designed with one goal in mind: preventing anyone who desires to do something dangerous to themselves or others from obtaining access to guns, especially certain types of highly dangerous weapons. Gun violence is an onion of an issue — there are many layers, but once you peel them back, access to firearms is at the core. It would have been interesting to hear Ryan discuss a more concrete plan geared toward having a larger impact on this essential problem.
Or, indeed, any of the root causes behind the gun-related tragedies that have remained in our national consciousness. For instance, in Ryan’s state of Ohio, residents may carry a gun openly. It’s a reality that stings when one recalls that, despite this open-carry law, a 12-year-old black child, Tamir Rice, was shot to death by a police officer for playing with a toy gun in a park five years ago.
Julián Castro, by contrast, used the debate stage to address police brutality head on: “I also think that we have to recognize racial and social justice. And you know, I was in Charleston not too long ago and I remembered that Dylan Roof went to the Mother Emmanuel AME church and he murdered nine people who were worshiping and then he was apprehended by police without incident. … [And] what about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland and Pamela Turner and Antonio Arset?”
He continued, “I’m proud that I’m the only candidate so far that has put forward legislation that would reform our policing system in America and make sure that no matter what the color of your skin is, that you are treated the same, including Latinos who are mistreated too often by police.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who recently released a gun policy initiative of his own, also made the topic searingly personal on the stage Wednesday night.
“I think I’m the only… I hope I’m the only one on this panel here that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week. Someone I knew, Shahid Smith, was killed with an assault rifle at the top of my block last year,” he said.
Booker went on to back the idea of treating guns like cars, requiring a safety course and formal license process. He also threw his support behind the introduction of universal background checks no matter the method of purchase, and banning bump stocks — two popular ideas.
“I’m tired of hearing thoughts and prayers. In my faith, people say faith without works is dead,” said Booker.