Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and my question for today's Takeaway, when will enough be enough?
How many of our children must die?
How many more of our teachers, our neighbors, and our friends will we bury?
How many prayers will we say?
How many thoughts will we send?
How many doctors will testify about the destructive power of bullets?
How many more powerful politicians will tell us there's nothing they can do?
How many more parents will quake in fear as we send our little ones off to school?
My question for today: when will enough be enough?
That's where we begin the show for today, Wednesday, March 29th.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On Monday, a 28-year-old shooter entered the Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, armed with two assault rifles and a handgun. The shooter then killed six people, three children, each of them nine years old; Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney. The three adults, a substitute teacher, Cynthia Peak, head of the school, Katherine Koonce, and the school custodian, Mike Hill. The shooter was then fatally shot by law enforcement who responded to the scene.
According to the Metro Nashville Police Department, the shooter was "under doctor care" for an emotional disorder. A Nashville police indicated the shooter legally purchased seven weapons from five different gun stores. In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Nashville Mayor John Cooper pointed to Tennessee's increasingly lenient gun laws.
Mayor John Cooper: You've got to be careful about the mental health and access to guns issue in America. Now, in Tennessee, we've been rolling back gun laws and making guns almost ubiquitous. It makes guns first of mind when people are thinking about doing terrible things, and we've got to make that clearly more difficult.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joining me now is Jonathan Metzl, Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry and the director of the Department of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. Jonathan, thanks for coming back on The Takeaway.
Jonathan Metzl: Thanks so much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've talked many times after mass shootings. This one I'm imagining might hit even closer to home because it's right there in Nashville.
Jonathan Metzl: Yes. It's just almost indescribable. What we're experiencing is what so many communities across the country have experienced, which is you're just in the middle of your day, and all of a sudden you hear sirens and helicopters, and then parents frantically checking their phones to see where their kids are and you know that something horrible is happening very, very near you. Obviously, a scene of trauma and carnage at the site and then that trauma just radiates outward into a community that really goes into a kind of shock but a predictable kind of shock, where we say, "Not so much, this is happening, but this is happening again."
Melissa Harris-Perry: You talk about that predictable kind of shock. As is often the case when there's a mass shooting, I immediately texted you and said, "Oh, I guess people will now go out to buy more guns." I live in North Carolina, where today the state legislature is set to override a veto of the Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. Cooper's veto was going to make guns a bit harder to get here in North Carolina, and it looks like literally in the exact wake of this, our state legislature are going to make guns more available. Why is that part of the predictable pattern?
Jonathan Metzl: I think there are two levels to this. Certainly, I would say it's no surprise to anyone. Mass shootings are kind of Rorschach tests, and in America, we have two almost polarizing opposite responses to them. On one hand, people like me say, this is where we need more common-sense gun reform. This is a moment where can't we see that even though we have a tradition of gun ownership in this country that the excess and the just pornographic deregulation of gun sales and carry have led to this moment, and so can't we put some brainwork on this that regulates just dangerous people getting guns and doing this.
On the other hand, I spend a lot of my life interviewing gun owners in red states. They feel like what this shows is the need for guns, that the terror on their side is, "Oh my God, what if I'm in a situation like this and I don't have access to my weapon because the police aren't going to come?" For people I know and people I speak with, this moment is a moment where they feel like, "I need to get more guns because there should be a gun available at any moment."
There's a different emotional response and that certainly, I think, drives why gun sales peak at the same moment that on our side talks of regulation peak. It's almost like this very predictable binary. The other part of it that you're seeing in North Carolina and certainly that we've seen in Tennessee is that GOP politicians have supermajorities in a lot of red states and they're using this to really, I feel, take advantage of gun laws, really push back everything.
We've seen it in Tennessee where there was a bill proposed last month that said that 18-year-olds should be able to open carry long guns, AR-15s, and AK-47s without any permit or training. There was a bill that said that police officers off duty, even if they were drunk or high should be able to carry their weapons and guns in courtrooms. It's just gotten to the point where people are probably just sitting around thinking, "What else can I do at this point?" Really, the frustration isn't that there's no partner here. I think many people want to come together.
What we're seeing in a lot of these state houses is just a pushing of guns. It used to be guns everywhere, but now it's almost like guns beyond everywhere. How can you imagine guns in every single place?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's so helpful because I actually do understand the emotional response, the first piece you started with. I may not have that emotional response but I fully understand and empathize with that sense of, if everyone is armed, then I must be weaponized too, and that only a fool would not in a circumstance where my nine-year-old-- and I have a nine-year-old who I speak of often on the show, but where my nine-year-old might be endangered and I wouldn't be able to protect my child.
I get why people could feel that way. It is harder for me to understand the politics of, again, in North Carolina, eliminating a local sheriff issuing a permit before someone could buy a handgun, in Tennessee, allowing 18-year-old to open carry long guns. Those do feel like they're not about protection. They feel like they're about show of force. I'm wondering if there's something about the politics of that that is clear to you in any way.
Jonathan Metzl: It's very clear to me, to be honest, because that's the book I'm writing now. I'm writing a book about mass shootings in America. I do think it really is about a show of force, that in a way, when you create this kind of polarization, then the litmus test is either are you in or you're out? Especially in a gerrymander era, gun politics are very powerful. They bring funding, they bring reliable voting blocks, and so politicians on the right really have to outdo themselves to show how loyal they are to that agenda because if they're not, the flip side is that the NRA is very good.
We've seen it in Tennessee, getting people voted out of office if they don't tow the party line. The middle ground that people call for just honestly doesn't exist in American politics. There's no system that rewards cooperation or collaboration. The system we have is really about, are you on one side or the other? I feel like until we rebuild the middle space that-- I keep thinking in Tennessee, and it's probably true in North Carolina also and other places across the country, nobody's going to get voted out of office for supporting extreme gun policies.
There's no reckoning, right? If you say, "Oh, gosh, I'm a Republican, but I want to work with people to form some common sense here or treat guns the way we treat driver's license or driving without your seatbelts or drunk driving,"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Or voting.
Jonathan Metzl: If you say that-- Yes, or voting. Exactly, right, that in a way, there is a price for that, you'll get targeted by your own side. In a way the middle ground that I think a lot of people say, "Why aren't people coming to the table?" there really is no middle ground for that. There's a negative incentive for people to have that conversation. What we're seeing is the end point of that, which is, as you and I have talked about a lot, there are many responsible gun owners. There's a long tradition of gun ownership in many parts of the country.
There's a Second Amendment of our Constitution, but there's no place to have the kind of conversation about, "Hey, here's your side, here's my side. How can we do this?" Again, it's a natural outgrowth of supermajorities and gerrymandered districts and things like that, where it's just the more extreme positions then become the mainstream positions, and this is what we have. Again, it's important to note that this is not pathologizing gun owners in any way, shape, or form. I think mass shootings are not a reflection of gun owners. They're a reflection of our political system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, we're going to take a quick break right here. We'll be right back with Jonathan Metzl and the question of guns in America on The Takeaway. One moment. Okay, we're back with Jonathan Metzl of Vanderbilt University in the wake of yet another school shooting in America. In this moment, we're hearing, I think, another common refrain, a common part of this script, which is that it's not about our politics or about guns, but about mental illness.
The shooter was reportedly under doctor care for an emotional disorder. To the extent that there is any discussion about restricting gun access, it tends to be around this notion of those with mental or emotional disorders. We've been on this terrain before, but I feel like it always bears repeating. Is that the direction we should be heading?
Jonathan Metzl: Let me say first that there always is a need after a shooting like this to try to understand why would somebody murder, not just innocent people, but children and children you don't know. It's so outside the bounds of the rules of the world that any of us live in, and so I understand why people try to push for some kind of explanatory narrative, and very often the narrative we fall on, and then looking at this shooting is a perfect example of mental illness. Also, let's be honest, there are issues that are circulating a lot about sexuality, gender identity, trans issues.
I wanted to say, first of all, that if somebody was suffering from some kind of mental illness or sexuality issues that led to why they did this, I would want to know about it. I think that's important to know. I think the logical fallacy, the problem that we fall into is mental illness and sexuality and other factors like that are not causal narratives. There's nothing about mental illness or identifying as transgender or anything else that leads somebody to shoot somebody else, and so I think that is the issue we fall into.
When I've studied mental illness in mass shootings before, absolutely many mass shooters have suffered from psychosis, depression, anxiety, but that doesn't mean those symptoms cause them to go out and legally buy weapons and then murder other people. In fact, when I study these mass shootings, I see that there are probably 100 or 200 factors that led to a mass shooting, everything from access to firearms, past history of violence, abuse, all these other factors. Mental illness very rarely isn't even in the top 50, but that's the one thing we focus on.
I think it's the same thing here where I want to know about the biography of the shooter. I want to know what drove somebody to do this, but when we say, "This is the thing that caused the shooting," that's where we get into trouble, and of course, it's not just random. We're also making that narrative about groups that are already marginalized, already the victims of violence. People with mental illness, for example, are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence. If we're going to have a conversation about what leads somebody to do this, let's have the full conversation, and we'll see that this is just one of many factors.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jonathan Metzl is Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry and the director of the Department of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. Jonathan, as always, thanks for taking the time with us on The Takeaway.
Jonathan Metzl: Anytime.
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