Fox's focus on mental health after mass shootings is a cynical dodge

Fox hosts claim mental health is the real source of mass shootings. They also oppose any efforts to deal with that.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson put his finger on what he claimed was the problem after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. “There is what they call a mental health crisis in progress,” he said on his show that night. “What's causing it? What can we do?”

Carlson never really got around to answering his questions, but he did point his viewers toward a villain: Democrats who propose tightening gun restrictions. “They don't seem that interested in the fact that there are an awful lot of tragically, sometimes dangerously mentally ill people wandering around all of a sudden, like, what is that?” he asked. 

Carlson isn’t alone — his colleagues have used the same mental health talking point as they follow the playbook that Fox hosts pull out after every mass shooting. They want to move the conversation away from popular Democratic proposals to limit access to guns, and so they say that Democrats are ignoring the real problem of mental health. But once that work is done, and the prospect of political action squelched once again, they quickly lose interest in actually taking steps to improve access to mental health care — until news of another mass shooting breaks.

Fox’s argument is flawed. Mental health is a global problem — but gun violence among developed nations is a distinctly American one. The U.S. rate of death by gun violence in 2019 was more than eight times as high as the rate in Canada, for example, while U.S. school shootings outnumbered Canadian ones by a margin of 288 to 2 between 2009 and May 2018. It is likely not a coincidence that Americans own three times as many guns as our neighbors to the north.

The network’s argument also risks stigmatizing people suffering from mental illness, the vast majority of whom are nonviolent and who are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than its perpetrators.

But let’s for a moment take Carlson and his colleagues at their word that they believe mental health is at the root of America’s daily slaughter and grant their premise. They have immense influence over the Republican Party and have repeatedly wielded that power to turn their on-air concerns into political action. What are they doing to help solve this problem?

Health insurance plans available through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace are required to cover counseling as well as mental health inpatient services. But Fox’s hosts virulently opposed its passage in 2010 and spent the years following its passage pushing Republican efforts to repeal it. 

Medicaid is “the single largest payer for mental health services in the United States.” But Fox heroes like Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have refused to support the expansion of Medicaid in their states, preventing residents who can’t otherwise afford it from accessing that care.

If Fox hosts really think that mental health access -- and not easy availability of guns -- is the crucial factor making us the only country in the world with weekly school shootings, then they should do something about it. That they aren’t really trying suggests that the invocations of mental health are instead a cynical effort to redirect attention from guns until everyone moves on from talking about this particular massacre of children.