In last night’s fireworks-laden debate, one of the more bizarre exchanges occurred when Nina Gonzales stood up to ask the candidates about gun control.
Now, I confess, this is a question I was really hoping wouldn’t come up, because I suspected the answers would make me deeply uncomfortable. The United States has a very complex and tormented relationship with guns, and a debate format is just really not the best place to be exploring gun policy, gun violence and gun ownership. So I braced myself for a wild ride, and I got one.
The President started off his answer with the usual nod to the Second Amendment and “sportsmen,” and then he started to veer into very uncomfortable territory.
...we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement.
The words “mentally ill” jumped out at me, and I prepared for some unpleasant rhetoric from both candidates. In Obama’s framing here, there was a direct link between mental illness and criminality; we crazies need to be kept away from guns because we might hurt people with them. And we should obviously be tracked and required to undergo invasive background checks probing into our medical history so guns can be kept out of our hands. Where have we heard this before?
This despite the fact that being mentally ill puts you at a much higher risk of violence. Not for violence, but of violence. The American Psychiatric Association notes that most people who are violent are not mentally ill. Stats on incidence of violence against us are highly variable depending on study methodology, which mental illnesses are tracked, and other factors; a recent study suggested mental illness makes it four times more likely you’ll be a victim of violent crime.
The President doubled down on his comments about mental illness and criminality before the stage passed to Romney. He wanted to make it really, really clear that he thinks crazies are the problem:
Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
It’s an interesting choice of framing and one that’s always bothered me: “the mentally ill” or “the disabled,” as though you’re referring to an amorphous bloc, not actual human beings. It betrays a lack of sensitivity and empathy that came up again later when the President used the term “mentally disturbed” to refer to mentally ill people.
President Obama’s comments were the only nod during the debate to any kind of disability or health policy, let alone to mental health issues. The contempt and fear he displayed for the mentally ill community was quite obvious and very chilling –- and noted. Despite the fact that the Obama Administration has actually showed willingness to work with disabled Americans, apparently that does not extend to respect, civil rights, or basic humanity for mentally ill people.
Under Obama appointee Eric Holder, the Department of Justice has fought for things like deinstitutionalization and the right to stay in our communities, while President Obama himself has met directly with disability advocates. Where is his interest in supporting those of us living with mental illness? Why is he furthering dangerous and hateful stereotypes about mental illness and violence?
Obama’s comments may have slipped under the radar for all but the most attentive of debate viewers, but that doesn’t mean the false correlations he made between mental illness and violence didn’t settle into their minds. This kind of casual commentary is perhaps the most dangerous, because people aren’t consciously aware of it and don’t take the time to challenge it, instead simply absorbing it and repeating it later.
And, of course, many people were distracted by Romney’s utterly bizarre tangent, in which he took the discussion from gun policy, to, well, this:
But let me mention another thing, and that is parents. We need moms and dads1 helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the — the benefit of having two parents in the home — and that’s not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea...
I’m sorry, what?!
Both the President and the Governor briefly touched on the underlying cultural issues that play into our culture of violence, albeit from very, very different perspectives. And both made a token effort at saying that perhaps if we want to reduce gun violence, we should be looking at root causes rather than just focusing on regulations.
Romney’s comments, though, veered so far off the mark that they were really almost fascinating. It’s not surprising to see conservatives vilifying single parents and promoting marriage, but I was actually a bit impressed that he managed to blame our violent culture on people like this man:
To her credit, Candy Crowley attempted to redirect both candidates and force them to answer the question, but it was a losing battle here as it was throughout the debate.
She wisely moved on to the next question, about outsourcing, which of course provoked an outburst of xenophobia and rhetoric comparable to that of the “yellow peril” scaremongering of the turn of the last century, a reminder that this country seems doomed to repeat itself.
100 years ago, we were being told that China was out to get us, single mothers were a scourge on society, and “mentally disturbed” people needed to be locked up in asylums, and some of the language used in this debate wouldn’t have been at all unfamiliar to politicians and public figures of what era. The US is a nation determined to perennially reinvent itself while ignoring its own history, at the cost of its most vulnerable residents.
You have the power to vote to change all this. Show up on Election Day, folks.
1. Remember, kids, the gaymarrieds don’t count. Return