Gun Smoke and Mirrors

A semiautomatic rifle for sale at the Florida Gun Show in Tampa on Sunday.

As I watched President Trump blathering to a group of governors on Monday about throwing people who have not committed a crime into mental hospitals to prevent mass shootings at schools, I recalled a country where I once lived in which the government had that power — the Soviet Union.

From the mid-1960s until the fall of Soviet Communism, the Kremlin employed the notion of “sluggish schizophrenia” — dreamed up by the Mengele-like psychiatrist Andrei Snezhnevsky — to imprison people on the ground that they were on their way to becoming insane.

Rejected by most civilized nations as a transparent fraud, sluggish schizophrenia was used against dissidents and other citizens who simply dared to seek exit visas. When I worked in Moscow as a reporter in the mid-1980s, I knew an Estonian man who was committed twice for refusing to enter the Red Army during the war in Afghanistan, an act of sanity. It was a literal Catch-22.

Now comes Trump, urging the nation’s governors to return to a time when he said the states could “nab” people and throw them in a padded room because “something was off.”

In fact, the law has required court-ratified findings of actual mental illness for involuntary commitment since around 1881, said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a professor at Columbia University’s medical school. “It was never the case that people could be involuntary committed for being a little odd, or even for that matter thought to be dangerous to other people unless they had evidence of mental illness,” he said.

I’m not bringing this up to suggest that Trump is a disciple of Snezhnevsky, despite his bizarre affinity for Kremlin autocracy, or merely to point out that the president was once again making things up. Rather, it is an example of the incoherent, insincere and inadequate ways in which the president and others on the right are suddenly claiming to be dedicated to addressing the nation’s epidemic of gun violence.

They are playing a cynical game of misdirection.

It is tragic that in recent decades, states have closed mental hospitals and thrown people into prisons when they should be receiving psychiatric care. But that has little to do with gun violence — in or out of schools, on a small or mass scale.

The gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety studied 133 acts of mass murder committed between January 2009 and July 2015 and found that only one of the murderers had been “prohibited by federal law from possessing guns due to severe mental illness.” In only 11 percent of the cases did the group find “evidence that concerns about the mental health of the shooter had been brought to the attention of a medical practitioner, school official or legal authority.”

Similarly, the president’s newfound support for banning bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic weapons to be fired nearly as rapidly as automatic ones, is fine, on the surface. But bump stocks could have been banned at any time before or since a killer used them to murder 58 people in Las Vegas last fall, and Trump has done nothing to make it happen.

Some politicians — so far not including Trump or the Republican leadership in Congress — are calling for raising the age to buy a semiautomatic weapon to 21 from 18. (The person charged with the murders in Parkland, Fla., this month was 19.)

There should be such a law, on a national basis and not state by state, but Everytown found that only 5 percent of the mass shooters it studied were under 20. And of course, mass shooting victims account for a tiny percentage of the Americans gunned down every year. A majority of children killed by guns are killed by accident, or by their own hand, or by adults, with weapons legally obtained by adults.

Trump also chimed in on calls from the right to arm more teachers and train them to shoot would-be killers. It’s an absurd and dangerous idea. Highly trained police officers frequently miss their targets, even at close range, in the heat of the moment. Having armed civilians at a shooting scene would just make their jobs harder.

The real problem with gun violence is not about mental hospitals, armed teachers, bump stocks or age requirements. The real problem is that there are far too many firearms in America — more than 300 million, according to Congress. They are too easy to obtain and they are becoming ever more lethal.

But the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has stopped every effort to reduce the number and lethality of firearms, a crusade that seems as much or more about expanding the markets for firearms makers than about constitutional principles.

Banning the possession of semiautomatic weapons by civilians would be a better approach. So would repealing lax concealed-carry laws, stand-your-ground laws and other rules that are proliferating around America to make it easier to shoot someone and get away with it.

The risk is that the passage of a few partial measures will take our eyes off the bigger picture and drain the energy out of the demands for change led by young people after the Parkland slaughter. That is what the gun lobby is counting on.

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