Peter Lindstrom: The Straw Man Haunting Gun Control

(Erica Lafferty, the daughter of the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal who was gunned down by Adam Lanza as she was protecting students in Newtown, asked Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire why she didn’t support expanded background checks on guns sales. Ayotte’s response is a commonplace diversion among conservatives. Mental health needs to be fixed first: NBC.)

It was an uncomfortable moment in Warren, New Hampshire. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte was confronted by Erica Lafferty, the daughter of school principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung who died while protecting children in Newtown, Connecticut. Ayotte’s team had tried for a controlled environment, declaring they would only answer “pre-written questions” from the audience—but the crowd clamored for Lafferty to be heard (after she did follow the rules and submit a question), so she received the mic.

Lafferty then reminded she personally visited Ayotte to discuss the issue reminded her how that Senator’s chief concerned seemed to be “the burden on the owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would cause. I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn’t as important?”

Lafferty

The senator took a deep breath, graced the victim with a knowing nod and after expressing some soft sympathy, she offered some meaningless platitude sand and an even more useless explanation for her vote.

As you and I both know, the issue wasn’t a background check system issue in Sandy Hook. Mental health, I hope, is the one thing we can agree on going forward.

And thus, Ayotte, who knew better, weaseled out of explaining how she voted in favor of the gun lobby, then tried to blame the mentally ill for her bad vote.

The mumbling over mental health is the straw man argument politicians use to fool voters.

In this gun-control debate, various mumblings addressing the “mental health” issue are now the “straw man” argument politicians use to fool voters. The classic example of an effective straw man in a political debate is the more than two generations of anti-abortion politicians who claim to be “moderates” on abortion because they support exceptions for rape and incest, yet they continue to support policies to ensure no one gets an abortion—for example, the House Republican bill from 2011 that banned all abortions unless a rape victim could prove to police and at a board of doctors that she had been the victim of a violent and “forcible” rape.

In short, the moderate exemption is an unenforceable fiction.

Like any good ruse, a “straw man” argument only works if there is a lot of ignorance over an issue and blaming gun violence on the failings of the mental health system fits the bill. Simply put, few Americans really know what our inefficient mental health system really is and most seem to assume the system works fine.

Take U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example: after sending a handwritten letter to the mother of a victim in the Aurora, Colorado, movie massacre that he would “vote to strengthen background checks” he flip-flopped and voted against them.

In the media firestorm, Flake’s spokesperson pulled an Ayotte and said no background check system will work without a strong mental health reporting requirement:

While Flake has never supported universal background checks, he has long supported strengthening our background checks system by making sure mental health records are more efficiently integrated into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

OK, Senators Flake and Ayotte, so please tell us: just how do you “efficiently integrate mental health records” in the background check database? Short answer: it’s impossible—and likely to be for decades.

When they aren’t demagoguing the issue to kill bills, even the NRA admits it is impossible to incorporate state mental health information into criminal databases: their own legislative alternative admits that given the lack a coordination between the 50 states, they can only propose a “pilot program” as part of their “reform” package.

In a word, the American system of mental health care sucks. Primarily run by a jumble of state and local jurisdictions that intermittently have contact with a few federal agencies, like the Veterans Department, there is no ability of any kind to coordinate data across state lines.

It’s impossible to integrate mental health records into the background check database and will be for decades.

Plus the level of care is terrible. About a third of Americans have limited or no access to mental health professionals, compared with less 18 percent of Americans (who live in overwhelmingly rural areas) that have some limited access to medical care. Getting limited federal dollars, every state budget has cut mental health to the bone in the last five years. Many states and localities have outsourced the function to specialized HMOs that promise “care at a cut rate.”

Thus, the future Ted Bundys, Seung-Hui Chos and Adam Lanzas of America will go undetected unless several personal incidents are reported to authorities (assuming they report and keep records) in a very short period of time. Should that happen, the cops will send them not to a doctor, but an HMO or state “screener” who is only required to have two years of college (not necessarily in any health field), who passed a company competency training exam and who is paid a bit more than a package handler for UPS or Amazon.

Still, if you’re Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, you will be processed and lots of paperwork will be sent and stored in state databases—but even Virginia which, unlike nearly two dozen other states, is supposed to report this data in their criminal database, failed to report it at all.

That is a fact both the gun dealer and pawnshop who would hand over the weapons that Cho would use to murder 33 people never fail to mention; namely Cho, with a reported history of mental illness, was subjected to the full National Instant Criminal Background Check System and he was never arrested or had prior felonies, he passed easily.

My guess is if you present such facts to weasely pols like Flake and Ayotte, they will take a fallback position like “this only proves need to do more to fix the system!” But it can’t be fixed. It would take billions to study the problem before you could even begin to solve them. Even if you required all states to “report” something to the gun-check database, just what are they going to report? No one in the 50 states or the federal government has agreed on what constitutes a standard to report in part because there is no single standard form and the mental health HMO lobby will see to it there won’t be one.

Remember how Bill Clinton in 1993 not only proposed a limited gun background check system for guns but also proposed (as part of health care reform) that billions could be saved by creating standard forms for medical reporting that could be used by doctors, hospitals and insurance companies? Fearing a loss of their control of information flow (thus a loss of their profits) insurance companies fought that change for years until even they realized standardize forms would actually save them money.

Still standardizing medical forms is “relatively” easy because trained medical professionals fill them out and make diagnoses. In the mental health system, it is not uncommon for a form designed by an insurance company seeking a profit to be processed by community college grad in American Lit who passed a five-day company course run by the HMO who was the low bidder on a government contract—is that the sort of “criminal” information you want reported to the state police?

And those are the problems we know about. While it is still under investigation, it is quite clear that when the governor of Nevada ordered draconian cuts in the state’s mental health care system, Nevada officials responded by selecting a couple of thousand severely ill patients for “outsourcing.”

Nevada officials then gave those mentally ill bus tickets and protein drinks before shipping them to 47 other states (though most went to California). Until the scam was exposed, they had hoped the mental state of the Nevada “rejects” were so far gone officials in other states wouldn’t be able to trace them back to Nevada.

Bottom line: there is no paperwork on these patients you could ever use in a gun check.

What is worse is Kelly Ayotte, more than any other public official, knew her arguments on mental health reporting were garbage. She was the attorney general of New Hampshire and every state in the union in the last two decades has been sued over the poor quality of mental health care, leaving the attorneys general the arbiters of their mental health systems.

Ayotte was no exception: despite a 2008 “master plan” designed to improve the Granite State’s mental health system, the scheme was a failure from the start and Ayotte’s office was forced to defend the state’s inept care system.

What is even more obscene is the logic Ayotte used to avoid a serious question from a crime victim. Sure, the senator is right—the gun background bill she voted against would not have stopped Adam Lanza’s mom from giving her son the murder weapons of Sandy Hook. But that’s only because family gifts were made exempt from background checks.

There is a reason for this. If background checks poll 90 percent favorably across the board, the few polls that have gone into more detail show specific background checks for parents who give guns to kids were supported by only about 54 percent of the public, thus political logic dictated those checks had to be written out of the bill.

But wait a minute! Lanza’s mom knew he was too mentally ill to own guns and she gave him guns anyway (just as outgoing NRA President David Keene knew his severely mentally ill son couldn’t legally buy a gun in Virginia, so he made a present of a pistol, which lead to his 10-year jail term for attempted murder.)

So if parents who should know better are giving their mentally ill kids guns and these bad parents are exempt from background checks, then what hell difference would an improved mental health reporting system have made in supporting the vote on gun background checks?

The obvious answer is none at all—proving Kelly Ayotte is just a weasel politician who dances to the gun lobby’s tune and brazenly hides behind the mentally ill when forced to confront real crime victims.

And we know this is true because while Ayotte was shedding crocodile tears for a Sandy Hook victim in Warren, she went before more pro-gun audience in the town of Fitzwilliam and used the Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin argument, that her “no” vote was a block to create a national gun registry so that socialist Obama could take your guns!

You may think (as I do) that the comprise Senate bill was not perfect and it likely would not have prevented what happened at Sandy Hook; still, passing that bill would have assuredly saved someone’s life in the future, so it should have been a “no brainer” vote for a politician.

 

Peter Lindstrom is a political consultant and researcher. He lives in Washington, D.C.