After a mass shooting, it’s all about mental health for some politicians — not guns

Mass shootings like the one at the Allen outlet mall prompt calls for gun reforms. But many legislators say mental health is the problem. Not guns.

By Caroline Love, KERAMay 12, 2023 10:45 am, , ,

From KERA:

Mass shootings like the one in Allen prompt calls for gun reforms and finger-pointing at mental health issues. But change rarely happens on either.

Some lawmakers blame mental health issues for mass shootings, not guns. Gov. Greg Abbott said that to Fox News after a gunman killed eight people at an outlet mall in Allen.

“We are working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it,” Abbott said on Fox News.

But critics say lawmakers use mental health as a way to distract from their lack of action on gun reforms.

“It’s a way those who know that they’re not going to vote with us for political reasons on sensible gun safety measures are trying to distract and divert the conversation to another direction,” said Nicole Golden, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense. Her group advocates against gun violence.

Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Self, who represents Allen, also pointed to mental health as the reason for mass shootings after Allen.

“We have people, though, with mental health that we’re not taking care of,” Self said on CNN.

Chris McNutt, the president of Texas Gun Rights, said in an interview with KERA before the shooting that politicizing gun violence blocks mental health reforms.

“The politicization of it is what is preventing us from trying to dig deeper into what would be some legitimate mental health reforms that are completely unrelated to guns,” he said.

Mauricio Garcia, the gunman, was discharged from the military in 2008 because of “mental health concerns,” according to news accounts. The Texas Department of Public Safety’s Regional Director Hank Sibley said Garcia purchased all of his weapons legally. He had three with him and five more in his car.

Golden said mental health isn’t the root cause of mass shootings.

“If that is true, then we should be strengthening our background check system,” she said.

Multiple bills in the legislature aimed to do that. But Golden said most didn’t move forward.

Alison Mohr Boulware said the majority of people with a mental health diagnosis aren’t violent. She’s the policy director at the University of Texas in Austin’s Hogg Foundation. She said people with mental illness of are more likely to be victims of violence.

Mohr Boulware said blaming mental health for mass shootings increases stigma.

“The last thing we want is to increase stigma so that people are unwilling to get help that they need,” Mohr Boulware said.

Bills in the legislature also sought to create an allotment for mental health services in Texas schools. But Mohr Boulware said none of them got committee hearings.She said other bills allowed schools to spend money from safety funding on mental health services. But she said schools tend to spend that money on increasing building security.

Abbott pledged in his 2023 inauguration speech to make school mental health and safety a priority this session.

“One essential part of our schools is safety,” Abbott said. “We must prioritize protecting students and staff. We must provide mental health services to students who need it.”

Abbott’s press secretary told KERA in an email that Abbott has always worked diligently to fully fund and expand mental health programs. He said current budget discussions could raise funding for mental health from $8.9 billion to $11 billion.

Other mental health bills also faced roadblocks. Rep. Mihaela Plesa filed a bill that would’ve required Medicaid to cover psychosis treatment. Her district includes Allen.

Greg Hansch said the homicide rate for people who receive this treatment decreases 15 times. He’s the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Texas.

Rep. Jeff Leach added an amendment to the bill that changed “must” to “may” – something Hansch said “gutted” the bill. Leach’s district also includes Allen.

Leach spoke on the House floor during the memorial recognition for the shooting victims. He said he didn’t think the mass shooting in Allen was preventable.

“I’m not sure that there are any bills in front of us this morning, this session, that could’ve prevented this,” Leach.

Leach co-sponsored the bill that became the state’s permitless carry law.

Golden said there were moderate gun reforms that would’ve made a difference on gun violence like House Bill 220, which would’ve flagged revoked and suspended licenses to carry.

“There were some low-hanging fruit that really I would have liked to see happen,” she said.

Golden said most people support common sense gun reforms, like background checks and increasing the age to buy a firearm in Texas to 21. A University of Texas at Austin survey found that 76% of Texans said they support raising the age. But Abbott has said he said he opposes doing so.

Just days after the shooting in Allen, a Texas House committee advanced a bill that would raise the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles. But the bill failed to move any further after missing a key deadline.

Other gun reform bills didn’t make it as far. Golden said legislators aren’t moving those bills forward because of the gun lobby. Abbott received $20,700 in contributions from gun rights supporters and groups according to Follow the Money. Leach got $1,750.

Time is running out to pass legislation on guns or mental health in Texas before the session ends. That could mean the same conversations will repeat the next time there’s a mass shooting.

McNutt said repeating the same argument doesn’t help.

“We’re telling everybody no, you’re not going to take our guns,” he said. “And it’s just, we see that time and time again, and nothing gets solved.”

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