President Donald Trump focused on internet radicalization and mental illness in an address to the country on Monday, characterizing the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend as a product of isolated evil mixed with mental illness.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger—not the gun,” Trump said.
Apart from promises to direct resources to improving mental health resources for isolated and troubled people and identifying warning signs from potential mass shooters, Trump also called for an end to “the glorification of violence in our society,” with a focus on “gruesome and grisly” video games. “It is too easy for troubled youths to surround themselves with a culture of violence,” he said. “Cultural change is hard, but each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.”
Trump also had two slightly more aggressive proposals. He suggested he would promote increased use of involuntary commitment in certain cases of mental illness, and he said he was looking to encourage the death penalty in mass shootings. “I am directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty, and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.”
Trump didn’t entirely dismiss the issue of firearms: He did propose national red flag laws—those that allow police or family members to request that law enforcement confiscate firearms from people who may prove a danger to themselves or others—in the speech. But he did not revisit his promise made online earlier that morning to support “strong” background checks.
The speech hit some traditional notes in moments of tragedy: Trump called for bipartisanship and sent condolences to the two American cities, as well as to the Mexican president, for the loss of lives. But he also fixated on the language of violence, with phrases such as “twisted monster,” “barbaric slaughters,” and “evil contagion.” He also called the violence “domestic terrorism,” though he fell short of linking the terrorism to race.
He did mention the white supremacist manifesto written by the El Paso shooting suspect that echoed some of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration. In the four-page screed, the suspected gunman confessed an intense hatred toward Hispanics and immigrants, whom he blamed for “cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” In his remarks Monday, Trump described the El Paso gunman as being “consumed by racist hate” and called for the country to condemn racism and bigotry. “Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul,” he said.
As a strange conclusion to his speech, Trump offered his condolences to the victims’ families, and, confusingly, wished that “God bless the memory of those who perished in Toledo”—a city 150 miles away from Dayton. Presidential candidate and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who had earlier called on Republicans to “get their shit together and stop pandering to the NRA,” had some thoughts on the mix-up:
Ryan wasn’t the only presidential candidate unafraid to speak plainly. Booker called Trump’s speech “a bullshit soup of ineffective words.” Joe Biden, on the other hand, held back from attacking Trump or the Republicans and instead called for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
Earlier on Monday, Trump seemed to be headed toward promoting background checks as his proposed way of dealing with the shootings.
“We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain,” he tweeted Monday. “Likewise for those so seriously wounded. We can never forget them, and those many who came before them. Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform. We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events!”
Trump has once before promised to support background check legislation after another mass shooting—the Parkland school shooting in Florida in February 2018—only to walk back that pledge. He has also vowed to veto two background check bills should they make it through, out of concern, he said, for Second Amendment rights.
In February, the House approved legislation to amend federal gun laws to require background checks for all firearm sales and almost all firearm transfers—the first major gun restrictions put forward in years. As federal law now stands, federally licensed firearm dealers must run background checks on buyers, but any other private sellers are not. The House-approved bills have not advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trump did, however, support a ban on bump stocks, an accessory that effectively allows a semi-automatic rifle to be converted to an automatic rifle. Two months after the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began the formal regulatory process of reviewing whether bump stocks should be banned, and Trump later signed a memo asking the attorney general to propose regulations to ban the device. The ban went through, and it is now illegal to own a bump stock.
On Monday before his speech, Trump also appeared to blame the media for the weekend’s tragedy. “The Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country,” he tweeted. “Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”
Update, Aug. 5, 2019, at 11:30 a.m.: This post has been updated with responses from several Democratic presidential candidates.