MOUNTAIN HOME, Arkansas
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 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.