On Thursday morning, President Trump posted an inflammatory tweet appearing to pin the blame for Wednesday’s shooting at a Broward County high school on the alleged shooter’s classmates and acquaintances.
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” he wrote. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2018
The president previously tweeted condolences for the victims immediately following the shooting and stated in a separate tweet that he was “working closely with law enforcement” and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
On Wednesday, a lone gunman entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus in Parkland, Florida and opened fire, killing at least 17 people and injuring 14 more. According to reports, one of the victims was an assistant football coach and security guard who had been attempting to protect students when he was shot.
Authorities on Wednesday confirmed that the alleged shooter, 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, had a history of posting “very, very disturbing” content on his social media channels. He had previously been expelled from school for “disciplinary” reasons, although authorities did not confirm what those were. Last fall, the FBI was alerted to a comment the 19-year-old had left on a YouTube video, claiming he was “going to be a professional school shooter,” BuzzFeed reported on Thursday. It’s not clear whether authorities did anything with the information, although the man who reported the comment, 36-year-old Ben Bennight, told BuzzFeed that FBI agents reached out to him again following the shooting, to ask whether he knew Cruz personally; he told them he did not.
Trump’s tweet on Thursday hinged on the theory that more could have been done to prevent a “mentally disturbed” person from carrying out such a violent act. It’s a popular talking point among both Democrats and Republicans but not entirely sound or productive.
While the majority of Americans like to pin mass shootings on those with mental health issues — a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in October 2015 showed that 63 percent of respondents believed “mass shootings [were a] sign of mental health” — statistics show that those individuals are actually far less likely to commit acts of violence than the average person living without mental health issues. According to MentalHealth.gov, only 3-5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with “a serious mental illness.” People who have mental health issues are actually 10 times more likely to become victims of violent crimes than the general population, the site adds.
Cruz had indeed been treated for mental health issues in the past, but unlike Trump suggested, those who knew him had made efforts to help. Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told reporters this week that the teen had received treatment at a clinic previously, but noted that he had not undergone any such treatment in over a year.
“It wasn’t like there wasn’t concern for him,” Furr told CNN. “We try to keep our eyes out on those kids who aren’t connected. …In this case we didn’t find a way to connect with this kid.”
What’s less clear is why Cruz, who had a documented history of mental health issues and had been flagged by the FBI in the past, had been able to obtain the AR-15 rifle he allegedly used during Wednesday’s shooting. According to law enforcement who spoke with the Associated Press, the teen had purchased the weapon legally, one year ago. As the outlet noted, federal law dictates that anyone over the age of 18 may buy a long gun, including the kind Cruz allegedly had in his possession.
Here, Trump may need to shoulder the burden of his own criticisms: in February 2017, the president signed a bill that rescinded an Obama-era regulation barring those with severe mental health issues from being able to purchase firearms. The Obama-era measure required anyone who had received a social security check for mental health problems and “people deemed unfit to handle their own financial affairs” to be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), according to NBC News. Gun rights advocates lobbied against the measure, saying it infringed on their Second Amendment rights.
According to NBC, the regulation, if enacted fully, would have added 75,000 people to the background check database.
This article has been updated to reflect new information regarding the number of people injured in Wednesday’s shooting.