Mental Health vs. Gun Control: A Devil’s Bargain

The tragic death of seven young people in Isla Vista, California, has sparked renewed calls for gun control, as everyone expected. Less expected: Republicans in the House are leading a push for a well-funded federal program to give a broad range of new services to Americans with serious mental illness.

Before we get to the details, let’s review some basic facts: Only 5% or less of violent act are committed by people with serious mental illness. Mental illness alone causes virtually no increase in the likelihood that any person will do violence. People with no mental disorder who abuse alcohol or other drugs are far more likely than the mentally ill to commit violence

These facts lead a lot of people to the rather logical conclusion that the real problem raised by mass killings lies not in mental illness but in the all-too-easy availability of guns.

Of course Republicans will have nothing to do with that line of thinking. Again, no surprise. The surprise is the new Republican interest in seriously addressing the nation’s shamefully inadequate treatment of the mentally ill.

It’s led by GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, a clinical psychologist from Pennsylvania. He’s introduced a rather sweeping bill, The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 3717). While some of its provisions are no doubt debatable, overall it would provide an unprecedented array of services to people struggling with mental illness and their families. Some of the reforms would come from changes in existing federal law and interpretations of law.<

But some would require significant increases in federal spending. The bill even calls for a whole new level of bureaucracy: an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders within the Department of Health and Human Services.

So far the bill has 86 co-sponsors — and 50 of them are Republicans!

Why the sudden GOP enthusiasm to see the feds take care of Americans who have suffered so much neglect for so long? A spokesman for a prominent House Republican, Duncan Hunter, acknowledged what everyone knows: GOP members “want to avoid any situation where mental health is primarily hitched to the gun debate.”

Murphy himself put it more delicately: “If guns caused mental illness, then we would treat that; mental illness needs to be treated, and it is not.” But the point is clear enough.

So what’s a self-respecting liberal to do? Murphy’s bill is the stuff that liberal dreams have been made of for years.

So what’s a self-respecting liberal to do? Murphy’s bill is the stuff that liberal dreams have been made of for years. Anyone who has directly seen the agony mental illness can cause will want to stand up and cheer for the Republican psychologist and his 50 colleagues. And the bill can’t pass the House without plenty of Democratic support.

Meanwhile, with the House surely under GOP control through 2016, and perhaps the Senate too, chances for any kind of gun control legislation are as nonexistent as the unicorn.

Still, supporting Murphy’s bill is a symbolic endorsement of the politics behind it: pandering to the totally false but widespread belief that mental illness, not guns, is the primary cause of violence in the United States. It comes pretty to close to saying that gun control no longer really matters, at least not for the time being.

Should liberals buy this devil’s bargain?

That question brought to my mind the old Joni Mitchell line: “We’re caught in the devil’s bargain / And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

It’s a pithy summary of the political dilemma Americans have struggled with throughout our nation’s history, the one that this mental health bill raises yet again: Are we pragmatists who take only what we can get, believing that politics is the art of the possible? Or are we idealists, standing up for absolute truth and justice every time as the genuine American way?<

Idealists since colonial times have claimed that the Old World was marred by pragmatism — the willingness to compromise with the devil and soil one’s soul in the dirtiness of political deals. Here in the garden of the New World, on the other hand, life could be Edenic. Every kind of perfection was possible. We could have it all — or so the story was told.

Thomas Morton’s Maremount, Brook Farm, and the communes of the ’60s hippies are only the most famous of the many efforts to put that vision into practice.

At the same time, there has been an equally powerful tradition of priding ourselves on our distinctive pragmatism, our Yankee ingenuity, our ability to get the job done no matter what it takes — even compromise on basic principles. The Constitution, putting into practice Madison’s vision of checks and balances, stands as the greatest monument to this side of America’s national narrative. The story of the Constitutional Convention has been told over and over to prove that our spirit of compromise works — even if it produced something as shameful as the 3/5 compromise (slaves counting as 3/5 of a person).

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt used a (no doubt invented) “Bulgarian proverb” to justify alliance with the Soviets in World War II: “You are permitted to hold hands with the devil until you get across the bridge.” That line has often been quoted, almost always with approval — except perhaps by ardent, principled anti-communists. Yet just a few years after the war’s end they were willing, even eager, to embrace all the evil means of the “red menace” to defeat it, and they never seemed ashamed of saying so.

The current battles between the tea party and the more “moderate” Republicans as well as between the Clinton and Warren wings of the Democratic Party are both as American as apple pie.

Which is a good reminder that both liberals and conservatives have been found in abundance among both the pragmatists and the idealists. The current battles between the tea party and the more “moderate” Republicans as well as between the Clinton and Warren wings of the Democratic Party are both as American as apple pie.

The lesson of history is that pragmatism and idealism are permanent features of all our major political parties. Every one has been riven by internal strife between its absolutists and its compromisers. Often enough the same person has been an absolutist on some issues and a compromiser on others.

So if we ask whether Democrats will support Rep. Murphy’s anti-gun-control mental health bill, the obvious answer is that some will and some won’t.

The question that remains is how each side among the liberals will deal with the other. Will the supporters of the Murphy bill respect the purist gun control advocates and their righteous motives for criticizing the bill, recognizing that the purists want both mental health reform and gun control, not a choice between the two? Will the purists respect the righteous motives of pragmatists who support the bill, recognizing that the pragmatists remain committed to gun control whenever it becomes politically possible?

The lesson of history is that the answer to both questions is “Not very likely.”

Idealists have typically been absolutists, stoutly resisting every suggestion of compromise. And their absolutism has given America some of its finest moments — like Dr. Martin Luther King’s refusal to tolerate the words “wait” and “gradualism” in the drive for genuine equality, now! The civil rights movement of the 1960s might have won no victories at all if the compromisers had prevailed.

Pragmatists have typically criticized the purists, often harshly, for letting the best become the enemy of the good and thus condemning the nation to end up stuck with the bad. Their cautious approach, too, has led to some fine results.

When FDR first entered the White House, for example, many of his advisors urged a utopian program of transforming the U.S. into what historian William Leuchtenberg called a “Heavenly City:  the greenbelt town, clean [and] green” prevailing everywhere. FDR opted for more limited, realistic goals. As a result we still have Social Security and unemployment checks flowing across the land to people in need.

Even if Tim Murphy’s mental health bill becomes law, it’s not likely to be remembered by history on the same level as the New Deal and the civil rights movement — though for the millions affected by mental illness and forced to endure our terribly inadequate mental health system, the suffering is often on a par with the worst effects of poverty and racism.

While the bill is being debated, however, it offers liberals of both the pragmatic and idealist persuasion a chance to show each other some respect and acknowledge that good motives can be at work on both sides.

ira chernusOur national mythology has always insisted that such mutual respect is possible because (as illogical as it sounds) Americans are both exceptional pragmatists and equally exceptional idealists — that we have a unique ability to walk on both sides of the fence simultaneously.

Our national mythology has also enshrined the claim that America created the best possible political system, where honest disagreement between well-meaning factions need not lead to outright hostility.

True, those mythic principles has been more honored in the breach than in the observance. Yet they remain as ideals worth keeping in mind when liberals are divided by the offer of a devil’s bargain.

Ira Chernus
History News Network


  1. Gea says

    I used to think that banning guns all together will solve the problem of crime and gun deaths and injuries in America. After studying and observing the problems of gun violence in the last 20 years, I had come to the opposite conclusion: RESPONSIBLE gun ownership is as American as apple pie, with its roots in times when Europeans started transforming wilderness into fertile soil and had used guns to hunt and defend their families against the bad guys, of one kind of another, when there was no government, army or police to protect the pioneers.

    Most mentally sick people are NOT violent…it is the sociopaths who are both violent and sufficiently functional to murder people. We need to do a better job in America to raise our children in the spirit of independence and self-sufficiency and away from the entitlement mentality which is now pervading American society where half of the population lives on some kind of government dole and believes that it is OK. Unfortunately, when the welfare system encourages young women to have children out of wedlock to avoid adult responsibility of working for a living, you get 45% of white and 75% of black babies born out of wedlock and often not knowing even who their father is. Often those children are left to their own devices and streets to “raise” them. Perhaps, we need to start paying young people NOT to have babies until they can afford them…and stay in school to improve their chances for more meaningful jobs.

  2. JoeWeinstein says

    How would we gun-control advocates be compromising away ANY idealism or principles by supporting the Murphy bill?? Why would we have to pretend, contra to fact, that it deals significantly with gun control? Aren’t we also interested in dealing with mental illness – guns or no guns? Why not simply accept the Murphy bill as an advance in dealing with mental illness?
    In brief, why view the Murphy bill as a ‘devil’s bargain’? Would the Goppies allow any more gun control if the Murphy bill were defeated than if it were passed?

  3. harry says

    If I am to believe this article, only sane people go and buy a gun or two and then go out and shoot people. I would suggest a person who is not in control of themselves, either by drugs, drink, or deraignment is a lot more likely to just go out and shoot someone than a person who is sober, not under the influence of drugs, or is mentally ill. Other than combat, the only way I am going to shoot someone is one of the reasons I listed above. The other reason would be self-defense.

  4. Ryder says

    It’s important to point out, that California has layer upon layer upon layer… years and years of accumulated gun control.

    Every time they added to it, it was supposed to “do something” about the issue. Yet it never does. And there are always thoughtful people, people that we eventually learn are right, when they say that all of these new laws just won’t solve anything.

    And each year they are proven right. The Santa Barbara killer obeyed all gun control laws. (And knife control laws… of which there are none) What did it accomplish? Nothing. Had he not killed himself, he had every opportunity to continue killing… with guns, knives, and his car.

    Yet we focus ONLY on the guns, and clamor for *more of the same* gun controls. Which did NOTHING… just like many people predicted. If we are going to talk about the mentally ill…. what is the definition of insanity? Famously, it is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

  5. Ryder says

    Here is a bit of meandering logic worth considering:

    “Mental illness alone causes virtually no increase in the likelihood that any person will do violence. People with no mental disorder who abuse alcohol or other drugs are far more likely than the mentally ill to commit violence.”

    Which has nothing to do with violence except a very small portion… and much much less to do with “mass shootings”…. which are only a very very very very small portion of violence that involves guns.

    “These facts lead a lot of people to the rather logical conclusion
    that the real problem raised by mass killings lies not in mental illness
    but in the all-too-easy availability of guns.”

    Which only goes to prove, if we believe the author in how people think, that people aren’t logical.

    Especially when all you have to do is look at the mental states of those that commit mass-shootings. If you do, you see about 100% of all mass shooters have a mental illness. It’s the more direct way to examine it, isn’t it.?

    I mean… if 100% of all murders committed were by men, wouldn’t we notice? Or would be be too stupid to make the connection?

    In the modern era, nearly all mass shooters are not only identified as having a mental disorder, but are under treatment and medicated for mental disorder.

    When millions upon tens of millions of Americans have guns (about 43% say they do)…. or about 84 million people.

    This author claims that guns cause violence, but *at most*, 30 people are killed each day with guns. But many of these are by police, and those defending themselves. Yet 90 people are killed on the highways each day, and not one of those can be justified.

    Are cars causing these road deaths? Why is nobody blaming cars? Instead we blame the drivers. They were texting. They were drinking. They were too old. Distracted.

    But for guns, we blame the gun. Why?

    Makes no sense…. especially when, in raw numbers… it’s about only 1/4 the size of the car problem.

    We’re not afraid of our cars… which are much more likely to kill us.

    Yet we are disproportionally afraid of guns? Isn’t that the definition of a phobia?

    HALF of the people killed in the Santa Barbara murder spree were killed with a knife. Why didn’t this author write an article about knife control…?

    Because, I believe, he has a phobia. Holophobia, to be precise.

    We can solve ALL of the violence committed by the mentally unstable… the beatings, the knifing, the shootings… if we just lock away anyone we suspect of being mentally ill.

    But do we want to do that?

    I think that we understand that to live free, means to protect freedoms… and that includes the freedom to have a mental illness… even if that poses a risk, and there is some loss of life. We can’t just go locking up *everyone*, just because a *few* might become violent. We live with the loss.

    We live with the *massive* loss of life from cars… just to preserve our freedom to drive to get groceries, or go to work, or take a weekend visit to family.

    Life has loss. Making knives illegal won’t really make a dent in it… and certainly is not worth the price of losing a useful kitchen implement.

    When we understand that we accept the loss of life that surrounds having knives be legal… literally putting the knife AHEAD of life itself, we have some serious reflecting to do about our phobias.

    I think the Republicans are wrong, and the Democrats are wrong.

    When the parents of the Santa Barbara killer tried to find help for their son, THEN is when we had our collective chance… but we did nothing.

    But other than that… we ought to do nothing… and accept that life has risk, from cars, kitchen utensils, and guns… and it’s part of the risk of being free.

    And life goes on.

  6. Sharon Toji says

    I’m not so happy about being relegated to either the “Clinton” or “Warren” wing of the Democratic Party. I support both these women, I believe they support each other, and pushing Democrats — particularly women, to divide on those lines is destructive to our movement, which is to improve governance by finally giving women a chance at the top.

    Sharon Toji

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