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Trump Blames Mental Illness for Parkland Shooting, Ignores Easy Gun Access & Loose Background Checks

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In Parkland, Florida, students and family members gathered for a candlelight vigil on Thursday night to mourn the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Early Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted, “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!” Mental health advocates are warning President Trump’s comments perpetuate stigma against people with mental illness, who are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence. We speak with Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Vanderbilt University psychiatry professor Jonathan Metzl, lead author of a Vanderbilt study entitled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” which found that fewer than 5 percent of fatal shootings in the United States are committed by people diagnosed with mental illness. Metzl also wrote a recent Politico piece titled “I’m a Psychiatrist. Making Gun Violence About Mental Health Is a Crazy Idea.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Parkland, Florida, students, parents, families gathered for a candlelight vigil Thursday night to mourn the 17 people killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. At least 15 other people were wounded, after a 19-year-old former student named Nikolas Cruz arrived at the high school in an Uber at 2:19 in the afternoon, armed with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and a black duffel bag and a backpack filled with loaded magazines, magazines of ammunition. On Thursday, Cruz confessed to carrying out the mass shooting, according to a police report.

Cruz was a former member of Junior ROTC, obsessed with guns, and had been expelled from the high school. On Thursday, President Trump gave a speech at the White House in which he made no mention of guns.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our administration is working closely with local authorities to investigate the shooting and learn everything we can. We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.

AMY GOODMAN: Also early Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted, “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!” he tweeted.

Trump’s speech and tweets sparked outrage from gun safety advocates and families of those who were killed in Parkland, who pointed out that last February President Trump repealed an Obama-era regulation that made it harder for people with severe mental disabilities to purchase firearms. Some mental health advocates, meanwhile, warned President Trump’s comments perpetuated stigma against people with mental illness.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. From Washington, D.C., Lindsay Nichols is with us, federal policy director for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. And in Nashville, Tennessee, Jonathan Metzl, professor of psychiatry and the director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. He’s the lead author of a Vanderbilt study that’s entitled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” which found that fewer than 5 percent of fatal shootings in the United States are committed by people diagnosed with mental illness. He writes frequently about gun violence in America, including a recent piece in Politico that’s headlined “I’m a Psychiatrist. Making Gun Violence About Mental Health Is a Crazy Idea.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dr. Jonathan Metzl, why is it a crazy idea?

DR. JONATHAN METZL: Well, let me say, first of all, that in the aftermath of mass shootings, it’s understandable to me why the question of mental illness comes up, because these shootings are so terrorizing, so spectacular, that we ask, I think, a very important question, which is: What would cause somebody to go over the edge, when there are so many responsible citizens, responsible gun owners in the world? And so, in that sense, I think we do learn a lot from the mental health histories of mass shooters.

But I see it, at a policy level, as the height of irresponsibility to do what President Trump did yesterday, which is to make the discourse really—excuse me—about mental health, because, on a statistical level, people with mental illness, first of all, are far less likely than sane people to commit gun crimes. And even in the case of mass shootings, what we see is that even though we jump to this question of mental illness right away, many other factors are probably more explanatory—everything from social networks, ideologies, male gender, race, the access of firearms. And in that sense, these are very complicated policy questions. And so, I feel like what President Trump is doing when he shifts the conversation just to mental health, as he said, is to cynically shut down, I think, a real conversation about what we can really do as a society to stop mass shootings, and also just to stop gun crime, more broadly.

AMY GOODMAN: Lindsay Nichols, as this has played out in Parkland, this horror, I wanted to go back to the quote of the mother who lost her 14-year-old daughter, who rocked the country yesterday as she spoke directly into the camera addressing President Trump.

LORI ALHADEFF: President Trump, you say, what can you do? You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands!

AMY GOODMAN: Lindsay Nichols, “stop the guns from getting into children’s hands.” And it’s not just her, but students are being interviewed. These are high school students, unlike Sandy Hook five years ago, that are able to articulate their views on guns. And over and over again, they are saying the same thing. Lindsay Nichols, your thoughts today?

LINDSAY NICHOLS: Absolutely. This is a horrible tragedy, and we’re working carefully at developing policy solutions that will address it. I think the real question is about vetting people who have access to guns. And in this circumstance, we have a very young person with a history that many members of the community knew about, but there was clearly no way to get that information into the gun purchaser background check system, under Florida law.

There are a couple of states that actually do have systems now in place that would allow that information to get into the background check system. California, Oregon and Washington, specifically, have now adopted laws that allow a family member or a law enforcement officer to seek a court order. And that court order means that the person goes into the background check system, and that if that person already has guns, those guns can be temporarily removed. So it’s a temporary prohibition when a person is in crisis, and, you know, is really based on evidence that there is some danger here, threats of violence, threats of suicide. And that’s really what the country needs right now. And I think the policymakers really need to start looking carefully at that in every state across the country and at the federal level.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there were reports that the police went to Cruz’s home something like, I think CNN was saying, 39 times in the last eight years to deal with domestic violence and a mentally ill person, Lindsay Nichols. He was still able to legally buy an AR-15 last year.

LINDSAY NICHOLS: Right, absolutely. And that shows that something is horribly wrong here. We know that domestic violence abusers are at a very high risk of committing violence in the future. The federal laws have big loopholes here, big, giant loopholes. Even we can say there are some laws, and that’s great, but we have to figure out a way to extend those laws so they cover individuals like this. And the procedure that states are now adopting allows the person to be temporarily prohibited from possessing guns without other rights being infringed or without a full domestic violence restraining order. I mean, in many of these circumstances, the real issue is access to guns. And that is what we need, as a society, to address. Stalkers—in this instance, there was some evidence that this person was also guilty of stalking—are also another high-risk category. And we have to find a way to prevent access to guns, because all we really have at this time is a background check system that only—that, you know, usually works in three minutes, but it doesn’t allow for a extensive evaluation of the person. If the evaluation isn’t done within three days, three business days, the person gets the gun. So we have to make sure that those records are complete, and we have to find a way to include records of people like this shooter, who had a long history of violent behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: And the last February, President Trump signing legislation—well, President Trump, in one of his first acts in office, repealing the Obama-era rule about people, mentally ill, decreasing their access to guns. Explain what it was. And then I want to get Dr. Metzl’s response, as well.

LINDSAY NICHOLS: Absolutely. So, this goes all the way back to 2007, after the Virginia Tech shooting. There was a bipartisan effort, and a compromise bill was actually enacted, signed by President Bush, that was meant to strengthen the records in the background check system. And one of the provisions there required federal agencies, like the Social Security Administration, to create a process to get records into the system, and then also allow people to get their records removed, if they weren’t actually a danger, if they had a gun. The Social Security Administration issued a rule to implement that law a couple years ago, and then President—and then Congress—but as soon as President Trump came into office, Congress passed, and Trump signed, a rule—a law revoking that rule. So, those people could not be put in the background check system, and that procedure was not in place.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, Dr. Metzl, can you respond to that? And talk about the relationship between the National Rifle Association and the idea that it’s mental health that is to blame for mass shootings.

DR. JONATHAN METZL: Sure. Well, first, in response to—I think Lindsay is exactly right here, that the issue for the action that President Trump did right when he took office was to allow gun rights for probably the most severely mentally ill persons in this country. I would say that on the day-to-day level this probably had relatively little practical impact. And I say that because these are people who are already under—they already have, basically, assistance living their daily lives in that way, and so most of these people probably aren’t out walking around in that regard. But it did seem to have a lot of symbolic effect. And the symbolic effect was to basically say there’s no regulation whatsoever on gun rights and that pretty much anybody, even people who we’ve already deemed to be high risk, even those people are going to have unfettered access to guns. And so, symbolically, and especially at times like this, I think that that’s an important point to come back to.

In relation to this question of mental illness, this has been a canard that has really been part of the NRA platform for a while, this idea that basically “guns and bullets don’t kill people, the mentally ill do,” to quote Ann Coulter. It’s been part of the NRA platform for a while, this idea that we don’t need a registry of gun buyers or gun owners, we need a registry of mentally ill persons. As a psychiatrist, I can say that that’s, first of all, stigmatizing, but also, I think, to my mind, it really won’t do anything at all to stem the tide of kind of—of gun violence and gun death in this country or of mass shootings.

I say that for a couple of reasons. One, first of all, is that there’s no psychiatric diagnosis whose symptom is shooting somebody or harming somebody. And for that reason, what we see across the board, when we look at studies, is that persons with mental illness, as we’ve just heard in the news headlines today, are, first of all, less likely than sane people to attack or shoot other people. But also, they’re far more likely to be the victims of violence. And we see that with the police case that you were talking about in the news headlines, where people’s symptoms are misinterpreted, and so they’re much more likely, almost 50 percent more likely, in some studies, to be the victims of violence.

And the other factor, I think, that—as why I think people in the mental health community are so upset about this is that there are other factors, other predictive factors, that we can look at. And we’ve already heard a few of them: male gender, history of domestic abuse, history of stalking, history of violence, past history of violence, social networks, factors like that. And so, when we just say this is a mental health problem, what we’re doing is we’re closing the door on all of these broader issues, also substance use and abuse, factors like that.

And so, in a way, I think the take-home point of all of this is that mental health is an important piece of this puzzle, but mental health is part of a question of prevention rather than prediction. In other words, I think that the main point is: How can we, as a society, create safety laws, almost like we do with a driver’s license, to make sure that the people who are operating this machinery are safe, rather than picking a needle out of a haystack about which one person is going to go on and commit a violent act?

AMY GOODMAN: This is Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaking Thursday.

HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: I echo what the president said this morning about the commitment this administration has to addressing the challenges of serious mental illness in America. While most Americans with mental illness are not violent, in fact, they are more likely to be victims of crimes themselves. We know that untreated serious mental illness can be associated with acts of violence like we saw yesterday. The Department of Health and Human Services will be laser-focused on this issue in the days, weeks and months to come. And it has already been a priority under our administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Jonathan Metzl, your response?

DR. JONATHAN METZL: Complete abdication of responsibility in that regard. I think that just focusing on mental illness really decontextualizes the issue of gun violence in this country. It’s a question of gun access as much as anything else. And as I was just mentioning—and I invite readers to look at, for example, my Politico article that details the research about this—there is no predictive test, in a way. And so, in that regard, I feel like this is nothing but reifying stigma and also really displacing of what I think the real focus of the guns should be.

And the other issue, I think, and I hope, is that I think—you know, I am somebody who studies gun policy. I go around the country doing focus groups and interviews. I feel like, actually, there is a lot of centrist movement on this. And I say this because maybe at one time people would have said, “Oh, this is a pro- or anti-gun debate, or pro- or anti-Second Amendment.” But nobody is saying that anymore. Even gun policy researchers, like myself and Lindsay, aren’t saying we want to take away anybody’s guns. Really, the question is: How can we respect the Second Amendment and let legal gun owners, you know, live their lives, and at the same time have policies in our society that keep everybody safe? And in a way, if you look at the victims, you know, Republicans and Democrats are being shot and killed. Republican and Democrat children are being shot and killed. And so, in a way, I feel like there’s a centrist movement in our country. And when I hear stuff about just blaming people with mental illness, first of all, I don’t think people are going to buy it, because it’s so clearly false. And second, I just think that the government is, in a way, going against the will of the people, who want a commonsense solution to this.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Lindsay Nichols, you work for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. That is Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman from Tucson, Arizona, who was gunned down in a parking lot, a bullet to her brain, and yet, amazingly enough, she survived, has been fighting, along with her husband, the astronaut, to bring gun control to this country. What do you think are the most important acts now? Now, in the media—I’m not even talking Fox, but on the other networks—they’ll immediately say, “Well, obviously, an automatic weapons ban is off the table,” already accepting what the terms of the debate have been so far. But what are you demanding now? What would make people safer in this country?

LINDSAY NICHOLS: Right, absolutely. We’re working to strengthen the background check system, and that means focusing on things like record reporting, focusing things on like getting a process for getting people into the background check system. These are really our focuses, because we want to make sure that the proper vetting occurs, that law enforcement has the opportunity to provide input into that, into the—whether a person should have access to a gun or not. I mean, that’s very important. And those are the kinds of things we’ve been focusing on, because—and we are getting some hope here.

We are seeing—we are seeing lawmakers start to question the gun lobby. And that is happening very slowly, but it is happening. And I think we have to push, because every day we know that so many more people are killed in this country in homicides and suicides. And we—and I’m starting to see some courage on the part of politicians. I’m trying to see—I’m starting to see them really think through the impact of the policies they support. And I think—and I think there is some reason for hope here.

AMY GOODMAN: And this statistic, put out by Everytown for Gun Safety, this was the 18th school shooting this year, which means there’s been a school shooting on average every 60 hours so far this year. Your final comment? And for Dr. Metzl, I’d like you to—if you could write one thing in a study guide that people should have as they watch the media for what to watch out for, as you see Republicans down the line keep repeating their mantra—mental health—and Democrats, some of them, talk about gun control? But let’s start with you, Lindsay Nichols. On average, one shooting at a school every 60 hours since the beginning of the year?

LINDSAY NICHOLS: Right. It’s absolutely outrageous, but we have to think of it in terms of the larger gun violence problem here. Children are also at risk in concerts, in movie theaters, and often very times at home. We have a epidemic of murder-suicides in this country, that are often preceded by domestic violence. And we need to look at that in that larger context and remember that schools are just—are actually, overall, relatively safe places for children to be, when you talk about the larger impact on children and on all members of our society. We do know that there are just too many families that have lost loved ones, and we need to start looking, as a country, at that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jonathan Metzl, I add to my questions to you: How should Nikolas Cruz have been dealt with? He’s already admitted to this shooting. He’s posted online, endlessly, threats to kill people. But 39 police visits to his home to deal with domestic violence or a mentally ill individual, the school kicking him out because he would bring, among other things, ammunition to school, stalked girls, etc. What went wrong here? And what do you think people need to understand as they watch what happens over the next few days?

DR. JONATHAN METZL: Sure. Well, I’ll answer both of the questions, if you don’t mind. The first, in response to the question you just asked, is I think that Lindsay was right, at the top of the show here, that there’s something called a gun violence restraining order. It’s basically, a lot of times, when you see people in the emergency room or police contacts. It’s just a quick snapshot. But families, classmates, people like that, I think, really know a lot about what’s going on, and so there are temporary measures that are very effective in other states. And so, certainly, I think that that needs to become national policy, because, certainly, a lot of times, it’s the domestic partners, it’s the families, who know—who can see somebody escalate at a time like this. So it’s not like there’s no policy solution, but it’s not a mental illness solution. It’s a family network, social network solution.

In terms of what I think psychiatry and mental health can do, I don’t know if this will go into a study guide, but I think the question that rarely gets asked at times like this is: Why do we need so many guns in the first place? What kind of society do we really live in and want to live in? I think that these broader questions are ones that I think mental health expertise can be really useful in having conversations, because I think what happens in the aftermath of this is that people just start to mistrust each other. All of a sudden we need more guns in school, more armed guards, more metal detectors. And so, in a way, what happens to society is a question that we rarely ask, because this mistrust becomes so pervasive. And really, that’s where I think mental health expertise can be useful, is to ask the broader questions of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Dr. Jonathan Metzl, professor of psychiatry, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. His recent Politico piece, we will link to, “I’m a Psychiatrist. Making Gun Violence About Mental Health Is a Crazy Idea.” And thanks so much to Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at two issues—the postings online of the gunman, his threats when he would post on YouTube, talk about the people he would kill, say he would become a professional school shooter. How was that missed, when people even reported this? And we’ll talk about his stalking of and harassing women, so often linked, a precursor, to mass shootings. Stay with us.

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