Friday Aug 19

Summer 2022

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORNER: Mentally Ill Lone Wolfs

Another Rightwing Dodge

As mass shootings become a new norm, the more they are explained away as simply the outbursts of mentally ill lone wolfs.  Often it is Republican officials who have been cutting the budgets for mental health services who offer this perspective, carefully sidestepping the contextual forces that are at work.

In “The Mass Shooting Blame Game” (May 17) The Wall Street Journal editorial board points to the mental health issues of a lone gunman in explaining the Buffalo shooting killing ten people and injuring several others. While acknowledging that the shooter, Payton Gendron, “did descend into some ideological rabbit hole,” the board goes on to conclude, “he may also be mentally ill…The idea that Mr. Gendron was driven to mass murder by the anti-immigration Facebook ads of Republican Rep. Elise Stefanic is preposterous.”  

Following the Uvalde, Texas school shooting killing 19 children and two teachers, and again wounding several others, Governor Greg Abbott stated, “What I do know is this, and that is we as a state, we as a society, need to do a better job with mental health.” Meanwhile, Texas ranks 50th overall among the states in overall access to mental health care and in April Abbott transferred $211 million from the state’s Health and Human Services Commission which overseas mental health programs to Operation Loan Star for border control, as Catherine Rampell reported in The Washington Post on Memorial Day

Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene opined “Our nation needs to take a serious look at the state of mental health today.” Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen quipped, “No doubt that’s true, and she’s exhibit A.

But context matters, a lot. When leaders like Donald Trump praise those marching along with the chant “Jews will not replace us” in Charlotte in 2017 and media personalities like Tucker Carlson repeatedly endorse “white replacement theory” then actions that would have remained appropriately hidden under a rock suddenly become normalized.

Yes, there is a need for better mental health treatment. But as the Wall Street Journal editorial acknowledges, Payton Gendron (the Buffalo shooter) had prepared a manifesto that “is clearly full of racist and anti-Semitic ranting” among other rants. Much of Gendron’s “argument” is grounded in white replacement theory. 

As for the lone wolf theory, Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, refuted Abbott’s and other Republican’s assertion that the Texas shooter (and other shooters) acted alone by stating simply, “No, he did not.  He had multiple Republican accomplices who keep blocking gun control and valorizing guns with open-carry laws.” Garnell Whitfield, whose mother died in the Buffalo shooting, was even more explicit when said, in reference to the shooter, “He did not act alone.  He was radicalized by white supremacists.  His anger and hatred were metastasized like a cancer by people with bit microphones screaming that Black people were going to take away their jobs and opportunities.”

Availability of guns is another critical factor that the “mentally ill lone wolf” school of thought ignores.  The U.S. constitutes about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but owns 42 percent of the world’s guns.  According to University of Alabama professor Adam Lankford, between 1966 and 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were from the US. This is a form of American exceptionalism that is nothing to be proud of.

But mental health care spending, mental health professionals per capital and rate of mental health disorders in the U.S. are comparable to those of other wealthy countries.  And, according to one 2015 study, just 4 percent of U.S. gun deaths can be attributed to mental health issues.

Several steps could be taken to substantially increase gun safety while honoring the Second Amendment.  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has suggested several including the following:  universal background checks, increasing the minimum age to purchase guns, prohibit those with drug or alcohol convictions to purchase guns, prohibit sale of AR-15-style rifles to teenagers, remove guns from those who are subject to a domestic violence protection order, deny sales to those who are on “no fly lists.”  Many other proposals have been offered.  But the mentally ill lone wolf diversion blocks any serious discussion.

Mental health issues of loan gunmen cannot explain the U.S. “leadership” in mass shootings.  Ignoring the contextual forces that create the Payton Gendrons of our new world order simply invite more Buffalos. To believe otherwise is preposterous.


Gregory D. Squires is Professor of Sociology and Public Policy & Public Administration at George Washington University. His column will be coming throughout 2022.

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