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Emergency Doctor to Trump: You Are Wrong, Mental Illness Is Not to Blame for Gun Violence Epidemic

StoryAugust 08, 2019
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President Trump went to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, where he was met by hundreds of protesters condemning his presence after the mass shootings over the weekend, which killed at least 32 people. Prior to his visits, Trump hinted at the need to strengthen background checks for gun purchases, and doubled down on what some healthcare professionals say is dangerous rhetoric linking illness to mass shootings. Numerous other political figures have pointed to mental illness as a contributing factor in mass shootings. From Montreal, we speak with Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Alpert Medical School, Brown University, and chief research officer of AFFIRM Research, a nonprofit focused on firearm injury reduction.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump visited Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, in a politically polarizing trip that followed last weekend’s mass shootings that killed a combined 32 people, including the Dayton gunman. As he was prepared to leave for Dayton and El Paso, Trump hinted at support for strengthening background checks for gun purchases. Earlier this week, he also made a link between mental illness and gun violence.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Third, we must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence, and make sure those people not only get treatment, but, when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Despite Trump’s claim, people who suffer from mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of gun violence than perpetrators of it. Trump, however, is not the only political figure to push the narrative that mental illness is responsible for last weekend’s tragic events. According to a new article in Time magazine, quote, “legislators across the political spectrum, ranging from Democratic presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang, to Republicans like the Governor of Texas and President Donald Trump, were quick to assign blame to mental illness — despite ample evidence that gun violence is not a mental health problem.”

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re going to Dr. Megan Ranney, one of the authors of the Time article, “The Dangers of Linking Gun Violence and Mental Illness.” She’s an emergency room doctor, associate professor of emergency medicine at Alpert Medical School, Brown University, and chief research officer of AFFIRM Research, a nonprofit focused on firearm injury reduction.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Dr. Ranney.

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can respond to President Trump immediately linking, saying it’s not guns, it’s mental illness that pulls the trigger?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: So, that is just false. The mass shootings that we’re experiencing across the United States, the vast minority of them are committed by people with serious mental illness. About 20% of Americans across the country suffer from mental illness. And as you mentioned, they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators themselves. Where they’re most at risk is risk of suicide. As you said, two-thirds of gun deaths across this country are suicides. And by labeling mass shootings as mental illness, we risk further stigmatizing the mentally ill, driving them away from treatment, increasing the rates of suicide, and also preventing us from making forward progress on this epidemic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Ranney, can you explain: How did this link come about, that basically all these mass shootings in the U.S. are a result of mental illness? It’s not an obvious conclusion to draw.

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: Yeah, I mean, I think that we want to assign blame somewhere. And in common conversation, you’ll hear people say, “Ah, that guy must have been crazy.” Right? It seems, quote-unquote, “crazy” to go and shoot a lot of people. It’s something that’s been repeated over and over by the news media. About 40% of articles about mass shootings mention mental illness as a cause. It’s something that we’ve come to believe as a nation.

But the evidence does not support that link. It supports a link between substance use and mass shootings, a link between hatred and mass shootings, a link between prior violence and mass shootings, but not with mental illness.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, isn’t the major perpetrator of this theory the NRA, the National Rifle Association, because they want to take attention away from, blame away from guns, and so they immediately talk about mental illness? Yesterday, after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and the mayor of Dayton met with Trump, Sherrod Brown talked extensively about, if President Trump thought there was an issue with mental illness, he should stop cutting Medicaid and threatening to revoke the ACA. If you can talk about what needs to happen right now and this movement, all over the country, across the political spectrum, calling for gun regulation, calling for assault weapons to be off the streets of this country?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: So, first, I’ll say, I would love nothing more than to see our mental health system shored up. As an emergency physician, I take care of folks every single day in the emergency department who are there because they have inadequate access to mental health treatment. We board people in the emergency department for days or weeks because there aren’t enough inpatient beds. So, please, fix our mental health system.

But what needs to be done — you mentioned the movement. Absolutely. I’m chief research officer of this group, AFFIRM Research, which is a collection of more than 20 medical organizations, nursing groups, public health groups, researchers. We helped lead This Is Our Lane last fall, which was a movement raising awareness about the really human toll of gun violence. There is so much that needs to be done, ranging from simple policy changes to research, which is desperately needed. Never in the history of this country have we fixed a public health epidemic without a deep investment into public health research. And that has been missing from the approach to gun violence for the past 22 years. Since the Dickey Amendment was passed in 1996, we’ve had virtually no federal funding for gun violence prevention research. So it is no wonder that we have not made progress on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about suicide, the fact that most gun deaths in the United States, two-thirds of them, are suicide, and what it would mean if guns were not so readily available?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: Absolutely. So, most suicides are impulsive acts. Studies have shown that there are, you know, minutes in between when someone thinks of it and when someone takes the act. Suicide attempts with a gun are 90% likely to be fatal, versus suicide attempts with other means are only about 10% likely to be fatal. And I will tell you, if someone makes it to my emergency department after a suicide attempt, I can almost always save them. I very rarely see people who have tried to shoot themself, because they die before they make it to my doors.

If we could decrease access to guns for people who are in that moment of intense fear and intense desire to take their own life, we can save lives. There’s a lot of efforts going on across the country to do that. There’s actually great cooperations with gun shops and with gun groups to try to raise awareness about the signs of mental illness. Of course, there are also the extreme risk protection orders, or red flag laws, which have been shown to decrease gun suicide rates. There is so much that can and should be done, and we are failing our country by not doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you also talk about the trauma especially the Latino community feels right now across this country? I mean, you have Congressmember Escobar, representing El Paso, saying President Trump has put a target on our whole community. I believe this was one of the largest slaughters of Latinos in American history, in El Paso. And at the same time you had that going on yesterday, the meeting of Trump in El Paso — no victims agreed to meet with him, by the way, who were in the hospital— and Dayton, you have this mass ICE raid in Mississippi, where it was believed to be the largest raid in U.S. history, of almost 700 workers at various facilities. How does this country deal with this trauma, and particularly the targeted communities?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY: Yeah, that’s a great question. And there’s a complex answer. So, again, I’m going to go back to the fact that there’s been so little research for the past 22 years. Actually, recently completed a review of the effects of mass shootings on kids and parents, and we basically don’t know. There have been some studies from Norway that show that mass shootings increase PTSD. But what we’re seeing as a nation right now is, as you mentioned, tremendous anxiety and post-traumatic stress in communities across the country, particularly in those communities that do feel targeted.

We’re also seeing it in healthcare providers. You know, there’s a growing, sad group of healthcare providers who have had to be the first responders to these mass casualties. And it is taking a toll there, as well.

We are creating an environment of fear in this country by not addressing mass shootings. But I will tell you that there actually is hope. One of the things that has buoyed me in the face of these absolutely tragic and hatred-driven events is this coalition that we’ve created within AFFIRM Research and other groups to help address this epidemic. I’ve been working on this issue for years. And I see hope. We are close to a tipping point within this nation of recognizing that this is something that, when we address gun violence as a health epidemic, we have the potential to fix it, just as we fixed HIV/AIDS, car crashes, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Megan Ranney, we want to thank you for being us, emergency room doctor. We will link to your piece in Time, “The Dangers of Linking Gun Violence and Mental Illness.”

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