Opinion: The NRA and ‘mental health’

In moments such as these, the NRA’s crisis-management playbook calls for diverting public attention away from the easy availability of weapons of mass death to important but subsidiary issues such as mental health.

In his speech this week to the Conservative Political Action Conference, for example, Wayne LaPierre seemingly committed his group to toughening background checks to catch the mentally ill, arguing that “anyone adjudicated as mentally incompetent or a danger to society should be added to the check system and prevented from getting their hands on a gun.” 

In a CNN townhall this week, Dana Loesch of the NRA made a similar argument, referring to the Parkland gunman as an “insane monster” and concluding that “people who are crazy should not be able to get firearms.”

It is, to a degree, a valid point. As we’ve learned, the Parkland shooter was known to local and state authorities as troubled and potentially violent, and the FBI has acknowledged mishandling tips about the danger that he posed.1 As punishment for that failing, Florida Gov. Rick Scott even demanded the resignation of FBI Director Chris Wray, who has been on the job for all of six months.

(As governor for the last seven years, Scott oversees a state agency that had visited the Parkland shooter in his home, interviewed him and deemed him a low risk to himself and others. He has yet to call for his own resignation.)

The problem is that even with all the “red flags” that we’ve learned about the shooter, under Florida law the state would still have faced a hard-to-impossible task in going to court and stripping him of his right to buy a firearm. In short, if this is to become part of our multi-pronged preventative response to such shootings, we’re going to have to change some laws.

Listening to the NRA, you are supposed to think that it’s reasonable on the subject and would support such a change. Loesch was pretty clear about it on CNN: “None of us (at the NRA) support people who are crazy, who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others getting their hands on a firearm."

Yet as Amanda Marcotte points out in Salon, that is simply untrue:

“.... the NRA has fought these "red flag" laws every step of the way. When California passed its law in the months after the Isla Vista shooting, Charles Cunningham of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) declared it was "one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties ever introduced in the California Legislature," When Washington introduced similar legislation, the NRA-ILA declared that it meant "a person's rights disappear merely on the say-so of someone else," (This is false. A court has to hear evidence and make a ruling.) They fought a similar bill in Oregon, but failed to defeat it.”

According to Marcotte, the NRA is also opposing such legislation in Vermont, Missouri, New York and Massachusetts.

Let’s take a look at that Massachusetts bill, H. 3081. It would allow family members, law enforcement or health-care providers to go to court to seek a “extreme risk protective order” barring someone from possessing or buying a firearm for as much as a year. To honor due process, the subject of the proposed order would have the right to a hearing, where he or she would be able to testify and present evidence.

According to the bill:

“A healthcare provider may seek an extreme risk protective order ... when: (i) the patient has communicated to the healthcare provider an explicit threat to kill or inflict serious bodily injury upon a reasonably identified victim or victims, the patient has the apparent intent and ability to carry out the threat, and the health care provider knows or has reason to believe that the patient controls, owns or possesses a firearm, and (ii) the patient has a history of physical violence which is known to the healthcare provider, the healthcare provider has a reasonable basis to believe that there is a clear and present danger that the patient will attempt to kill or inflict serious bodily injury against a reasonably identified victim or victims, and the health care provider knows or has reason to believe that the patient controls, owns or possesses a firearm.” 

Who could oppose something as basic and necessary as that? The NRA could, and does. Here’s how the NRA-ILA, its “Institute for Legislative Action,” rallies its Massachusetts members to lobby against that legislation:

“Constitutional rights are generally restricted only upon conviction of a felony. The reasons for this are two-fold. It limits restrictions on constitutional rights to only the most serious offenses, and, perhaps more importantly, felony convictions provide greater procedural protections to the accused, which results in more reliable convictions. The Right to Keep and Bear Arms should not be treated as a second-class right and should be restricted only upon conviction of a felony, like other constitutional rights.

In high-profile national media events, in times of crisis, the NRA uses mental health both as a distraction and as an example of its willingness to be reasonable. In reality, when it matters, that seeming nod to rationality and good faith is a total fraud. 


1The FBI receives some 1.5 million tips a year through its telephone and Internet hotlines, or more than 4,000 a day. It can never hope to accurately prioritize those tips every time.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.