The shooter who killed six at a Virginia Walmart left a “death note” addressed to God stating the events weren’t planned but felt like evil was leading him. Unfortunately, the ‘evil’ narrative is similar to many other historical accounts of many atrocities. After the shooting, President Joe Biden stated he would try and legislate against automatic weapons. (I concur, but good luck. However, that’s not my broader point.) Mass shootings account for less than 1% of the roughly 40,000 people killed by guns each year. While the number of people killed by guns is way too high, the presumption that ‘Evil’ or ‘Satan’ leads them is more likely a symptom of mental illness.

The ease with which people translate “evil spirit” reflects an entire set of assumptions about mental impairment. In the modern era, mental illness is a current term, not an ancient one. In the olden days, if someone exhibited mental illness, that person was labeled ‘evil.’ Labeling someone as evil makes the presumption that it comes from an unnatural external source. Moreover, this source is not random but happens for a reason. As such, mental illness is a sign of divine disfavor: it carries a value judgment of the affected individual. 

On the other hand, many politicians overtly blame shooters as mentally disturbed. Politicians mislabel shooters as mentally disturbed and openly propel the common misconception that individuals with mental illness are responsible for gun violence. In reality, only a tiny proportion of interpersonal violence in the United States (about 4%) is attributable to mental illness. Most people with mental illness do not engage in violence against others, and most interpersonal violence is not the result of mental illness. Instead, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. 

Unfortunately, focusing on mental illness as the cause of gun violence stigmatizes millions of Americans proactively managing a mental illness. The actual cause of the gun violence problem is more likely to be easy access to guns. However, politicians supported by the gun lobby fail to implement policies that reduce gun violence. 

Politicians don’t want Americans to know that the United States has similar rates of mental illness as other countries but much higher rates of gun violence. For example, the firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is nearly 25 times higher than in other high-income countries, and the firearm suicide rate is almost ten times that of other high-income countries. Gun deaths are 11.4 times higher in the U.S. compared to other high-income countries. 

The politicians also don’t want Americans to understand that gun violence prevention policies focusing on mental health diagnosis will not stop gun violence. Yet many politicians wish these policies to fuel prejudice and fear around people living with mental illness. Why? If you are scared of mental illness, you will likely vote from a position of fear. Similarly, politicians know that should health experts somehow “cure” mental illness nationwide, 96% of interpersonal violence would remain. (Politicians pray no one does the math.)

After the Uvalde shooting, Texas Governor Greg Abbott began his news conference not with policy but with theology. “Evil swept across Uvalde today. Anyone who shoots his grandmother in the face must have evil in his heart, but it is far more evil for someone to gun down little kids.” Three days later, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre regurgitated a similar idea, “If we as a nation were capable of legislating evil out of the hearts and minds of criminals who commit these heinous acts, we would have done so a long time ago.” The refusal to acknowledge systemic problems related to gun control is a failure of theological imagination with ongoing deadly consequences.

Granted, the massacre of innocent people reflects a disturbed mind. The disturnamce is more mental than satanic. However, politicians and leaders set philosophying on evil and giving the evil-hearted (their term, not mine) easy access to tools of mass destruction and death bears some responsibility for that very ‘evil.’ Whether known or not, pompus politicians and philosopying supporters are part of the structural evil that permeates many mass shootings. How will they explain it to God? Well, don’t know. But, good luck.