Dec 01, 2023

Texas politicians point to mental health as the cause of mass shootings — experts say more funding won’t help

Reporting Texas

When Jesse Woche heard about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, the now 24-year-old felt galvanized to work in the gun violence prevention space full time. She had been interested in advocacy since she was 15, shifting between environmental conservation, abortion access and other causes that mattered to her.

“(The shooting) just devastated me to the point where it was like, I have to be part of this solution,” Woche said. “Of course you can be part of the solution as a donator, as a volunteer, there are so many capacities, but for me I needed to be all in.”

Before starting her current job as advocacy and outreach coordinator with Texas Gun Sense, a nonprofit aiming to prevent gun violence in Texas through common sense gun safety policies, Woche worked for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for governor.

“I talked to hundreds of voters, maybe even thousands, about issues that matter to them and it kept coming back to guns,” Woche said. “It kept coming back to people not feeling safe because of the amount of guns in Texas and the constant threat of gun violence that looms over people.”

With Texas Gun Sense, Woche advocates for increasing funding for safe storage education, implementing background checks on every gun sale and raising the age to purchase assault rifles or semiautomatic weapons to 21. These policy proposals receive overwhelming, bipartisan support among voters in Texas. There’s just one problem: Republican politicians, who control every statewide office, only want to talk about mental health.

“We are working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a Fox News interview following the mass shooting at an Allen outlet mall in May. “People want a quick solution. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

In the last 14 years, Texas has experienced nine mass shootings while the Legislature has continuously loosened gun restrictions, from allowing permitless carry to expanding where people can carry guns. After the Uvalde shooting, the victims’ families advocated for raising the age to purchase a semiautomatic assault weapon. The conservative Democratic representative of that district, Tracy King, filed the bill and it was voted through committee, but it died before reaching the floor. Mental Health America ranked Texas as the state with the least access to mental health care in 2022, and despite increasing funding for mental health care this legislative session, experts say more mental health funding won’t impact the rate of mass shootings.

“Appraising (mass shootings) the way they do as a mental health problem is very disingenuous,” said Robin Breed, volunteer legislative lead with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action. “By and large the people that are committing these heinous crimes are not mentally ill.”

Ragy Girgis, associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and an expert in severe mental illness, said no link exists between mental illness and mass shootings. Girgis and a team of researchers created the Columbia Mass Murder Database, seeking to understand mass murder by looking at every variable involved, including weapon, date, location, motive and demographics.

“If one does a motivational assessment or analysis of mass shootings, one identifies that about 5% of them are due to mental illness,” Girgis said. “(Out of that 5%), it’s primarily due to schizophrenia and psychotic disorders.”

Girgis found three primary factors motivating the majority of mass shooters, all of which are unrelated to mental illness. First was the desire to take one’s life — more than 50% of mass shooters take their own lives. Many people equate this suicidality with mental illness, but Girgis said his research showed that suicide occurring in the context of mass shootings is more related to an epidemic of nihilism, emptiness and narcissism. Girgis said mass shooters are also typically motivated by an affinity for firearms and an extreme desire for infamy and notoriety.

Despite there being no scientific backing, equating mass shootings with mental illness makes a complicated epidemic problem much easier to understand, said Josh Blank, director of research for the Texas Politics Project. People have a hard time thinking about issues in terms of systems, but mental health focuses it on an individual and their actions, he said.

Blank recalled a talk he attended with Texas Republican Jerry Patterson after the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In 1995, Patterson authored a bill legalizing concealed carry in Texas.

“He said, ‘You convince me that anybody who walks into a movie theater and shoots it up isn’t crazy,’” Blank said. “Politics is sometimes like that — that’s a real simple answer to the question, but it feels right to a lot of people.”

Blank said polling shows partisans hold different views on gun safety. The Texas Politics Project polled Texas voters on how they believe more guns would impact safety in the United States.

Over 75% of Democrats said the country would be less safe, Blank said, while over two-thirds of Republicans said this would increase safety.

“You can have a mental health problem and still regulate guns more, but if your core voters actually see guns as part of the solution to more safety, it means that any sort of proposal coming out that would limit access to guns is actually seen by a large share of voters within the governing party here in Texas as doing harm,” Blank said.

For many Republican voters, any form of gun control is not on the table because it doesn’t address what they see as the problem of mass shootings, which Blank said is overwhelmingly mental health.

Like most places in the country, there is majority bipartisan support among voters for minimal gun laws like universal background checks. However, Republican politicians don’t support these measures due to fear of a primary challenger. General elections in Texas are not very competitive due to gerrymandering creating safe seats for the incumbent party, Blank said, making the primary election the place of competition.

“Because the Republican primary is where the competition takes place, essentially the agenda is set by a much more conservative set of voters than Republicans overall, or than the entire electorate,” Blank said. “Despite the fact that you can have overwhelming majority opinion in favor of these minimal gun restrictions, any vote in favor of gun restrictions is going to create a primary challenge. That’s just not something that incumbents are interested in.”

Woche said mental health should be part of the conversation around mass shootings, particularly in relation to red flag laws, protective mechanisms that would prevent people who are experiencing a mental health crisis and showing signs of being a threat to themselves or others from being able to own or access a gun. However, she said that mental health shouldn’t overshadow other issues with mass shootings.

Breed, who has worked for years with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement advocating for stronger gun laws and greater public safety measures, said she sees the focus on mental health by Texas Republican politicians as an attempt to avoid addressing gun laws.

“It’s them running away from their responsibility,” Breed said. “It’s easier for them to talk about mental health because they will do anything to avoid talking about the fact that for the past two decades, they have slowly been loosening gun laws.”

Breed has lived in Texas her entire life. Her kids grew up and went to school in Texas, and she said she feels disheartened by the lack of movement on gun safety by the Legislature.

“Every single mother I know is terrified to send their kids to school now,” Breed said. “And the fact that our state is just ignoring it — when they talk about mental health issues, they’re just changing the subject. The truth is, they are beholden to the gun lobby and they’re so worried about getting primaried that none of the Republicans in the Texas House or Senate feel like they can.”

Girgis said increased funding for mental health won’t make much of a difference in preventing mass shootings. Strategies to limit gun violence and mass shootings among people with mental illness have already been implemented and shown to work, Girgis said, including registries not allowing people with severe mental illness access to guns and assertive community treatment ensuring recently hospitalized people are taking their medications.

“The percentage of mass shootings that are related to mental illness has been decreasing over the past 120 years,” Girgis said. “The number needs to be zero, but the number has been decreasing and funding for mental health isn’t necessarily going to make a difference in terms of the prevalence of mass shootings. It will be good for other reasons, but it’s probably not going to affect the prevalence of mass shootings.”

The Texas Legislature increased funding in its 2023 session for state behavioral health services, but with a bill addressing the mental health workforce shortage dying in committee, no dedicated funding for mental health care in schools and no bill to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate— one of the largest barriers to receiving mental health care in Texas — care often can’t reach the people who need it most.

“In terms of mental health care and access, (Texas is) towards the bottom in the nation,” Breed said. “If (legislators) really believed that that was what was going to fix this gun violence problem, they would have thrown some money at it this session since we had this surplus. But instead, they focused on border walls and vouchers.”