U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski gave her annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Thursday where she praised the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, called for federal and state reforms to address the cost of health care, and addressed the need to do something massed shootings without mentioning guns.
Murkowski recalled the impact that the Columbine High School shooting had on her when she was in the Alaska Legislature, and how it left her with a feeling of “horror and helplessness” because her children were back in Anchorage. She said that something needs to change, saying that the cycle of impasse after mass murder is unacceptable.
But the change, she said, needs to be in how the country handles and addresses mental illness.
“We’ve seen a growing trend in mass shootings and greater violence in this country that’s difficult to explain or understand. Just as with the issue of addiction there is no simple fix, we know that,” she said. “We do know that we are failing so many with mental illnesses. How we answer their cries for help before they do harm should be part of our focus. We cannot have continued congressional impasse where we have a tragedy happen, we all express our condolences and then we all lock into our political stances and nothing is done until the next tragedy hits and then we express our outrage all over again.”
She talked about school shootings twice during the address, during the speech and again when answer a question by Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool. Wool wanted to know if the Parkland shooting where 17 students and school staff were killed last week was the country’s “childproof cap moment,” referring the 1982 Tylenol murders that prompted tougher regulations on medicine.
“Is now our childproof cap moment for gun violence and gun shootings? What do you suggest? I know this country does not have a monopoly on mental illness,” he said, “but we do seem to have a monopoly on these mass shootings.”
Murkowski said it’s complicated.
“I wrestle with this every day. What is the right answer?” she said. “There is no one answer. We have to address the issue of mental illness and how we can respond to the signals. How we can be a better support for those who not only are clearly ill, but in many cases are sending the signals that they’re asking for help here. How can we come to knit that all together?”
She suggested that students be given better tools to anonymously report troubling behavior and other warning signs, but also suggested that beefing up security measures at schools is not the answer (Meanwhile, Alaska Rep. Don Young called for teachers to be armed, suggesting that the “the mental concept and the family structure” should be taken into account.)
In a roughly six minute response to the question, Murkowski again didn’t directly mention guns though she urged everyone to avoid drawing red lines and refusing to discuss any of the options to address mass shootings.
The closest she came to directly addressing guns, was when she mentioning that there’s legislation that will soon be introduced in response to the Parkland shooting.
“There are provisions that I think we be can looking to that again help on the mental health side, help with the assessment, help with the training side, address the clear inadequacies that we we have within our background check system,” she said.
She didn’t directly talk about the role guns play in mass shootings until pressed about it during a meeting with reporters after the address, when a reporter wondered why she never mentioned guns.
“It’s about violence, it’s about mental illness, it’s about weapons,” she said. “So what’s a weapon? A weapon can be a gun, a weapon can be a vehicle, a weapon can be a chemical. I don’t want us to focus on just the weapon or a single weapon. Because I recognize if we were to as a Congress to outlaw the sale of let’s just say, AR-15s, is that going to keep the next person who is mentally ill and who has chosen to take a course that is horribly wrong and horribly tragic. Does that keep him from finding another weapon that can be equally destructive?”
Murkowski appeared to be acutely aware of the tricky line Republicans walk when talking about guns, particularly under the pressure of the National Rifle Association.
“What needs to happen is all of this needs to be discussed,” she said, “but if we put ourselves in a situation where it’s the NRA versus the rest of the world, have we really gotten to the root of what we’re dealing with?”
When the reporter commented that it seemed Murkowski was unwilling to talk about guns, Murkowski fired back.
“I’m OK talking about guns,” she said, noting she had mentioned background checks. “I’m using the word gun, I’m OK using it. But I also know as a pretty strong supporter of the second amendment I want to make sure that when we’re talking about guns and weapons, that we’re not putting ourselves in a situation where we think we have solved the problems because we have banned one particular weapon.”
Why it matters
Despite sidestepping guns in her address, Murkowski did suggest that improving the national background check system should be part of the response to shootings and specifically referenced the Fix NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) legislation.
But she seemed to bristle at any suggestion that the United States should broadly rethink accessibility to guns when asked if the country “has a problem with the accessibility of guns” by a reporter.
“I think the U.S. has a problem with accessibility of guns by those who are mentally ill,” she fired back before moving on to another question.
That continued focus on the mental health of shooters is likely to draw groans from many. Yes, mental health can and does often play a role in the mass murder of others, but it’s not a prerequisite to the killing of others. To suggest that mental illness is the driving cause of the United States’ mass shootings is an overly simplistic answer, and something that Wool noted when he questioned Murkowski about gun violence.
“I know this country does not have a monopoly on mental illness,” he said, “but we do seem to have a monopoly on these mass shootings.”