Greg Abbott Invoked Mental Illness After the El Paso Shooting. Where Is Evidence?

A woman holds a sign after a silent march to Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center for the victims of the Walmart shootings in El Paso August 4, 2019. Image via Michael Chow/The Republic via REUTERS

A woman holds a sign after a silent march to Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center for the victims of the Walmart shootings in El Paso August 4, 2019. Image via Michael Chow/The Republic via REUTERS

By The Texas Tribune

Hours after a white gunman walked into an El Paso Walmart on Saturday and killed nearly two dozen Hispanic shoppers, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott addressed a room full of reporters in the border city and expressed grief and support for the community.

As high-profile mass shootings continue to erupt across the country — three of which occurred in Texas in the last two years — a reporter asked the governor what he planned on doing to ensure one doesn’t happen again.

Abbott, a Republican, hesitated, then spoke at length about how the state Legislature reacted to the 2018 high school shooting in Santa Fe, eventually focusing on what he said was the most agreed-upon need: addressing mental health issues.

“Bottom line is mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence, and the state of Texas this past session passed a lot of legislation and provided funding for the state to better address that challenge,” he concluded, referring to bills aimed at improving children’s mental health care.

Behind him, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, visibly stiffened, shaking her head slightly as Abbott connected mental illness to what appears to be an act of domestic terrorism fueled by a white supremacist ideology.

The next day, before a downtown El Paso vigil for the victims, she put into words what had been apparent on her face.

“I would also call on those who use mental illness as an excuse to please stop. Please stop,” Escobar told reporters, to light applause from those beginning to arrive for the service. “It further stigmatizes those who truly suffer from mental illness, and the fact of the matter is people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime, not perpetrators.”

“This tragedy is not in vain if we can finally have a reckoning in this country as to what is really going on,” she added.

Abbott’s focus on mental illness is a common reaction among Republican lawmakers immediately after mass shootings, often mirroring public sentiment. But such focus comes to the dismay of mental health experts and Democrats, who argue that automatically pinning such horrors on mental illness is a way to avoid talking about issues surrounding gun violence and the rising prominence of white supremacy in the United States. In reality, the intersection between mental health and mass shootings is complicated.

In 2013, a Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans blamed the mental health system for failing to identify potential perpetrators of gun violence with that belief trumping other causes such as drug use or easy access to guns. In a similar CBS poll from 2017, 68% thought better mental health screenings could prevent gun violence. And multiple high-profile shootings with ties to mental health issues have further cemented the connection into the minds of lawmakers and Americans — perhaps most notably with the Sandy Hook shooting, where the gunman killed 20 elementary school children and six school employees.

But research on mass killings and serious mental illness doesn’t usually back this notion, though results vary depending on how attacks and mental illness are classified.

2015 study of about 230 mass homicides since 1913 found that only 22% of the killers could be considered mentally ill. Examining only the killings from this millennium, however, the author, a forensic psychiatrist, considered 32% of the killers mentally ill. A 2016 study found only 15% had a psychotic disorder and 11% had paranoid schizophrenia. But smaller, more recent government reports indicate higher levels — a U.S. Secret Service report of 27 mass attacks in 2018 found that 44% of attackers had been treated for or diagnosed with a mental illness.

Photo by  Heather Mount  on  Unsplash . A North Texas mother and her son hold protest signs at the March for Our Lives sister rally in Denton, Texas on March 24th, 2018. In the background, volunteers register people to vote.

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash. A North Texas mother and her son hold protest signs at the March for Our Lives sister rally in Denton, Texas on March 24th, 2018. In the background, volunteers register people to vote.

The rates of mental illness among mass murderers in recent studies do not surprise Greg Hansch, the executive director of Texas’ branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He doesn’t negate that mental illness is sometimes a factor in large-scale attacks, but argues that even then it is not the sole cause and is often quickly used as a scapegoat for gun violence.

“We shouldn’t immediately jump to blaming mental illness, because one, it’s impossible to make that determination without having facts to back that up and, two, there are often other causative/aggravating factors that need to be explored,” he said. “Certainly in the case of El Paso, it seems like it was a hate crime.”

There has been no information released regarding the mental health of the suspected gunman in Saturday’s massacre. The 21-year-old allegedly did, however, publish a racist manifesto before the shooting in which he described the attack as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Still, Abbott and Republicans nationwide again pointed to mental illness immediately after back-to-back shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. President Donald Trump told reporters on Sunday “these are people who are very, very seriously mentally ill.” In a White House address the next day, he said the country must reform mental health laws “to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence.”

“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said.

That hatred motivated the El Paso gunman isn’t being debated in the wake of the shooting. But Texas Democrats say zeroing in on mental illness allows Republicans to ignore gun safety measures and racism.

“Let’s use our collective voice to keep the focus where it should be – that’s on the dual problem of lax gun laws and the white nationalist views that have been fueled by President Trump,” wrote the leader of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, state Rep. Chris Turner, in a memo to his colleagues. “We should not allow Republicans to try and change the topic to mental health, video games, prayer in school or anything else.”

Quickly after the Santa Fe shooting, which killed 10 people and left over a dozen wounded, Abbott brought together students, school officials, law enforcement, mental health experts, and advocates on both sides of the gun debate to propose legislation aimed at preventing future school shootings. He also created committees to study the issue while lawmakers were not in session to come up with proposals for the 2019 Legislature.

At the time, mental health experts cautioned Texas policymakers against using mental illness as the end-all-be-all solution to school shootings. The Senate committee sought out the very question of what propels mass shooters. After assembling an army of experts to testify, the committee released a 2018 report that showed mental health professionals had warned the government of a potentially flawed logic.

Photo by  Rochelle Brown  on  Unsplash .

Dr. Andy Keller, CEO of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, told senators that mental illness alone is “not a risk factor for violent acts” and that there is “no reason to believe focusing solely on this population will prevent future events,” according to the report. Another expert, Dr. Jeff Temple, the director of behavioral health and research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, testified that “mental illness is not a driving factor of violence,” adding that those suffering are “more likely to hurt themselves or be hurt by someone else than to harm another individual.”

As the 2019 state legislative session began in January, mental health concerns and school-hardening measures, like increasing police presence and installing metal detectors, were still the top priorities for Republican lawmakers, who hold majorities in both the state House and Senate. By the time lawmakers went home in late May, the Legislature passed sweeping legislation aimed at improving mental health care for students, arming more school employees and "hardening" schools.

Bills tied to gun control efforts went nowhere. Gun restrictions were, in fact, loosened in some ways, including a measure that forbids landlords from requiring tenants or guests not carry firearms.

“Nobody wants to talk about gun violence prevention measures. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that we need to do something … about the increasing racism in this country,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said before a Sunday vigil and silent march in El Paso. “On the other hand, I want to tell you that there were a whole slew of bills that were championed by the state leadership … that now allow, for example, guns in your churches, that allow more guns on campuses.”

Abbott told reporters on Saturday after his initial press conference that it was too soon to talk about politics.

In Ohio, just two days after the Dayton mass shooting, the Republican governor proposed a “red flag” law that would allow authorities to remove guns from people a court deems dangerous. President Trump has called for a similar policy at the federal level. Such a proposal fell flat at the feet of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after the Santa Fe shooting.

In the wake of El Paso, Abbott said Wednesday that the gunman didn’t appear to exhibit any red flags, but announced there would be a new set of roundtable discussions this month to address potential solutions.

At Sunday’s vigil, El Pasoans showed they are ready for change. People filled the streets the evening after their city was attacked, carrying handmade signs that expressed pain, but also frustration with the politics surrounding such tragedies that were now all too real for them.

Among hundreds of grieving community members marching in silence downtown, one woman held up a sign written in bold, red marker: “Racism is not mental illness.”

Alexa Ura contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The University of Texas Medical Branch and the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This story was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America.

The Forgotten History of Segregated Swimming Pools and Amusement Parks

By Victoria W. Wolcott, Professor of History, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. First published in The Conversation.

Summers often bring a wave of childhood memories: lounging poolside, trips to the local amusement park, languid, steamy days at the beach.

These nostalgic recollections, however, aren’t held by all Americans.

Municipal swimming pools and urban amusement parks flourished in the 20th century. But too often, their success was based on the exclusion of African Americans.

As a social historian who has written a book on segregated recreation, I have found that the history of recreational segregation is a largely forgotten one. But it has had a lasting significance on modern race relations.

Swimming pools and beaches were among the most segregated and fought over public spaces in the North and the South.

White stereotypes of blacks as diseased and sexually threatening served as the foundation for this segregation. City leaders justifying segregation also pointed to fears of fights breaking out if whites and blacks mingled. Racial separation for them equaled racial peace.

These fears were underscored when white teenagers attacked black swimmers after activists or city officials opened public pools to blacks. For example, whites threw nails at the bottom of pools in Cincinnati, poured bleach and acid in pools with black bathers in St. Augustine, Florida, and beat them up in Philadelphia. In my book, I describe how in the late 1940s there were major swimming pool riots in St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Exclusion based on ‘safety’

Despite civil rights statutes in many states, the law did not come to African Americans’ aid. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the chairman of the Charlotte Park and Recreation Commission in 1960 admitted that “all people have a right under law to use all public facilitates including swimming pools.” But he went on to point out that “of all public facilities, swimming pools put the tolerance of the white people to the test.”

His conclusion: “Public order is more important than rights of Negroes to use public facilities.” In practice, black swimmers were not admitted to pools if the managers felt “disorder will result.” Disorder and order defined accessibility, not the law.

Fears of disorder also justified segregation at amusement parks, which were built at the end of trolley or ferry lines beginning in 1890. This was particularly true at park swimming pools, dance halls and roller-skating rinks, which were common facilities within parks.

These spaces provoked the most intense fears of racial mixing among young men and women. Scantily clad bathers flirting and playing raised the specter of interracial sex and some feared for young white women’s safety.

Image via A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi, Smithsonian Magazine.

Image via A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi, Smithsonian Magazine.

Some white owners and customers believed that recreation only could be kept virtuous and safe by excluding African Americans and promoting a sanitized and harmonious vision of white leisure. However, my work shows that these restrictions simply perpetuated racial stereotypes and inequality.

This recreational segregation had a heartbreaking impact on African American children. For example, in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. described the tears in his daughter’s eyes when “she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”

Protests at pools

Major civil rights campaigns targeted amusement park segregation, most notably at Gwynn Oak Park in Baltimore and Glen Echo Park outside of Washington, D.C. And other parks, such as Fontaine Ferry in Louisville, were sites of major racial clashes when African Americans sought entrance.

By the early 1970s, most of America’s urban amusement parks like Cleveland’s Euclid Beach and Chicago’s Riverview were closed for good. Some white consumers perceived the newly integrated parks as unsafeand in turn park owners sold the land for considerable profit. Other urban leisure sites – public swimming pools, bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks – also closed down as white consumers fled cities for the suburbs.

The increase of gated communities and homeowners associations, what the political scientist Evan McKenzie calls “privatopia,” also led to the privatization of recreation. Another factor contributing to the decline of public recreation areas was the Federal Housing Administration, which in the mid-1960s openly discouraged public ownership of recreational facilities. Instead, they promoted private homeowner associations in planned developments with private pools and tennis courts.

Lasting legacy

After the 1964 Civil Rights Act desegregated public accommodations, municipalities followed different strategies intended to keep the racial peace through maintaining segregation. Some simply filled their pools in, leaving more affluent residents the option of putting in backyard pools. Public pools also created membership clubs and began to charge fees, which acted as a barrier to filter out those pool managers felt were “unfit.”

Over time, cities defunded their recreational facilities, leaving many urban dwellers with little access to pools. Ironically, some blamed African Americans for the decline of urban amusements, disregarding the decades of exclusion and violence they had experienced.

The racial stereotypes that justified swimming segregation are not often openly expressed today. However, we still see their impact on our urban and suburban landscapes. Closed public pools and shuttered skating rinks degrade urban centers.

And there are moments when one hears the direct echo of those earlier struggles. In 2009, for example, the owner of a private swim club in Philadelphia excluded black children attending a Philadelphia day care center, saying they would change the “complexion” of the club.

In 2015 in a wealthy subdivision outside of Dallas, police targeted black teenagers attending a pool party.

These incidents, and our collective memories, are explicable only in the context of a rarely acknowledged history.