There has been a consistent trend in the United States: following a mass shooting, opinions vary from promoting gun control and a federal assault weapons ban to staunchly rejecting the necessity of any regulation, citing mental health struggles as a principal reason for the massacre. After the tragedy in Maine, gun control advocates have focused on guns while gun rights advocates have focused on mental illness.
The greatly avoidable tragedy in Lewiston, Maine reminds us, once again, of our unique problem: conflating mental health with gun control. The perpetrator, using a weapon that was designed to kill enemies on a battlefield, slaughtered 18 people and injured 13 others. According to News Center Maine, documentation was obtained by law enforcement in the weeks and months prior to the deadliest mass shooting in Maine’s history. Family members and the Army Reserve expressed concern of his worsening mental health and access to firearms.
It is wrong to blame the attack on the shooter’s mental illness, and scapegoating mental health in connection to mass shootings is incredibly ineffective.
Promoting this connection between mental illness and violence dangerously stigmatizes mental health care, further creates victimization and labels those who are suffering from mental illness as a threat to the community. Though public perception may assume mental health and mass shootings are connected, the risk of violence in association with serious mental illness alone is only four percent, per the National Library of Medicine.
The White House released a statement from President Joe Biden, urging cooperation from Republicans in Congress to “Work with us to pass a bill banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, to enact universal background checks, to require safe storage of guns, and end immunity from liability for gun manufacturers.” This stance is widely accepted by gun control advocates.
The House of Representatives, with their recently appointed Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), an ultraconservative figure of the religious right, will ignore these calls. This is nothing new, as Republican lawmakers have long maintained their position on gun rights: despite the majority of registered American voters supporting a ban on assault weapons, as polled by Morning Consult, 42 percent of the GOP electorate are opposed to the policy.
In his first interview since becoming Speaker, Johnson sat down with Sean Hannity of Fox News and said that, “The end of the day, it’s—the problem is the human heart. It’s not guns, it’s not the weapons. At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves and that’s the Second Amendment, and that’s why our party stands so strongly for that.”
One of the key groups advocating the position of opposition to gun control are Christian nationalists—those who believe that the United States should be a Christian theocracy. Since Johnson was elected Speaker of the House, his Christian nationalism has been widely documented, as explained by TIME.
With the exception of general political orientation, Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor of opposition to gun control, according to a study from Socius by sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead, Landon Schnabel and Samuel L. Perry. “For many Americans, the gun control debate is not merely about a secular public safety issue but is instead deeply entwined with what are perceived as the God-given rights of the American public and a purported breakdown of the moral fabric of American society.”
According to TIME, “Among whites who said America should be a Christian nation, more than 4 in 10 named the right to keep and bear arms as the most important right. Not freedom of speech. Not even freedom of religion. Gun rights.”
The possession of firearms is often seen as a means for white conservatives to safeguard their perceived freedoms by maintaining order. By using righteous violence—their violence—Christian nationalists can seek to exert influence over power dynamics, putting it at odds with democratic principles.
The United States is not the only place where mental health struggles exist, but we are the only place that regularly experiences mass shootings given our easy access to guns. With 120 to every 100 people, according to a 2017 report from Small Arms Survey, this is truly an American problem.