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OPINION

Both sides on gun rights need a change of heart

By DAVID VON DREHLE | The Washington Post | Published: November 8, 2017

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. — The crumpled hills that cup this southern Ozarks city are dressed in russet, and the hollows are steaming in the chilly dawn. Deer season is here. That’s no incidental fact in a place where the forest exerts a primal pull; where men, women and children alike dress in camo at school, Hobby Lobby and the public library; where a scan of the FM radio band finds tips on field-dressing a trophy buck to ensure that the taxidermist has enough skin to work with.

The annual youth hunt was this past weekend, when children 15 and under had shooting privileges. This weekend, the adults take over.

Even after a massacre in a Texas church — on the heels of a bloodbath in Las Vegas not long after an attack on members of Congress in Virginia while memories were still fresh of a slaughter in Orlando, Fla., and so on, so horribly on — you won’t find much support for new gun control laws around here. The cultural foundations beneath that sentiment trace through generations. But one essential element is a sense of simple justice: People don’t like the idea that they should pay for the offenses of others.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, fueling mistrust and feeding on misunderstanding. Many millions of safety-conscious and law-abiding gun owners don’t accept that their rights are to blame for mass murder. They see themselves as living, harmless proof that the gun is not the problem; it’s the person holding the gun. “This isn’t a guns situation,” President Donald Trump said for them after the Texas massacre. “… This is a mental-health problem at the highest level.”

Think of drunken driving, which kills some 10,000 Americans per year. Is the problem in the driver or the car? The answer seems every bit as obvious to people in places like Mountain Home as the need for more gun laws seems to editorial writers in America’s newsrooms. So obvious, in fact, that a lot of them are convinced that gun control advocates must have some larger, more ominous, agenda in mind.

But suspicion runs both ways, as it so often does. The reflexive shift to mental health has come to feel more like a dodge than a diagnosis. Trump and his supporters would be more credible if they delivered a plan of action worthy of a “problem at the highest level.” Instead, from Trump on down, the United States falls short in this department — as any family that has tried to access treatment for a suffering loved one can tell you.

More than half of American adults with mental illness do not receive care, according to Mental Health America’s 2017 annual report. This is due in part to widespread shortages of mental health professionals, who are — due to skewed priorities — among the lowest-paid specialists in the health care sector.

The problem runs deeper, though. While advocates rightly stress that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, the insidious nature of mental illness dictates that many of the sickest individuals are among the least likely to seek help; the Texas killer, it turns out, escaped from a mental health facility in 2012. Deficiencies and delusions that make a person dangerous can also blind him to his own madness.

And what if the trouble is even deeper still? The mental malfunctions that can metastasize in mass murder are varied and complicated — killers have shown signs of schizophrenia, sociopathy, depression, bipolar disorder and so on. But almost by definition they betray the self-pity, self-absorption, grandiosity and lack of empathy that define narcissistic personality disorder. As the late Christopher Lasch argued, narcissism may be the defining pathology of the modern age. Our atomized, individualized society, focused on self-fulfillment and drunk on celebrity, brews narcissism as lavishly as $5 coffee and pours it out freely from Rodeo Drive to Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Texas, local law enforcement and the FBI took a small but important step by deciding, after initial briefings, not to speak the name of the Sutherland Springs church killer. Media outlets should join this nascent movement to limit the amount of celebrity conferred on mass murderers. Perhaps fewer narcissists would be motivated to turn their personal pain and failure into deadly spectacles.

But dimming the spotlight won’t by itself solve the epidemic of mass shootings. A problem of such an American nature needs a response that brings Americans together, rather than drive us apart. And that will require a change of heart on both sides of the gun rights divide.

From gun owners, we need a real commitment to safety and responsibility: closing loopholes, respecting background checks, beefing up databases and supporting adequate mental health funding. With rights come responsibilities, gun rights included.

And from gun controllers, we need a new spirit of genuine respect for the fact that Americans who own firearms are not doing anything wrong. Until they trust you on that fundamental score, you’ll get nowhere.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

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