Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Sunday blamed mass shootings like Thursday’s deadly attack in Roseburg, Oregon, on mental illness, saying stricter gun laws would not eliminate the problem.

“This isn’t guns, this is about mental illness,” Trump said, on ABC’s This Week, according to a transcript provided by the network. “You have sick people in this country and throughout the world, and you’re always going to have difficulty,” Trump said. 

Trump also said, in a separate interview in NBC’s Meet the Press, that the answer could be more guns, and that if there had been other guns in the room at Umpqua Community College, there may have been fewer deaths and injuries. He added that cities that have tougher gun legislation don’t necessarily have less violence. 

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I reached out via email to Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in researching attacks like yesterday’s. He responded bluntly: “When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Instead, he said he’d prepared a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”

The problem, as he explained in a follow-up phone call, is that any attempt to predict who is most likely to commit a mass shooting — and therefore prevent it — runs up against the fact that these events are extremely rare, and as a result have only the broadest, least useful risk factors associated with them…

As Appelbaum sees it, despite the endless, whirling conversations about the causes of mass shootings, there’s just no serious approach to the issues that doesn’t involve gun control. He mentioned that, despite widespread beliefs otherwise, there actually aren’t major differences between the overall rates of violence in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the developed world. Where the U.S. differs is in the number of homicides, and to Appelbaum that is largely attributable to the free flow of powerful guns. Every country has its angry young men; every country has various cultural forces that likely exacerbate violent people’s grievances; not every country makes it easy for anyone to get a gun. Some countries, like Australia, reacted forcefully to mass shootings by restricting the availability of powerful weaponry, and Appelbaum thinks the data is clear that these approaches work (Margaret Hartmann dug into the debate behind the Australian and British reactions to mass shootings Thursday).

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In Great Britain, people used to kill themselves by putting their heads in the oven and asphyxiating themselves with coal gas. This accounted for almost half of British suicides in the late 1950s, but Britain then began switching from coal gas to natural gas, which is much less lethal. Sticking one’s head in the oven was no longer a reliable way to kill oneself — and there was surprisingly little substitution of other methods. Suicide rates dropped, and they stayed at a lower level.

The British didn’t ban ovens, but they made them safer. We need to do the same with guns

A poll this year found that majorities even of gun-owners favor universal background checks; tighter regulation of gun dealers; safe storage requirements in homes; and a 10-year prohibition on possessing guns for anyone convicted of domestic violence, assault or similar offenses.

We should also be investing in “smart gun” technology, such as weapons that fire only with a PIN or fingerprint. We should adopt microstamping that allows a bullet casing to be traced back to a particular gun. We can require liability insurance for guns, as we do for cars.

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Australia bans the semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that are found in every hunting blind in America. It requires purchasers to state a specific reason for buying a gun — personal protection is not considered a legitimate cause — and then wait nearly a month before receiving the firearm…

In citing Australia and Great Britain as examples, does Obama envision their gun laws as right for America? If so, he should put it on the table. He should have the courage to tell America exactly how Australia and Britain control guns, and make the case for emulating them. Draft those bills and send them to Congress.

Instead, he climbs on his high horse and denounces the American culture. Well, change it. He’s not been shy about doing so in other areas, why not guns?

Because he’d rather bluster than admit the only certain way to end gun violence is to round up the 300 million private guns in America and melt them down.

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The problem is in the second bolded sentence: “The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws.” There’s some truth to this, but there’s also a big pitfall here, and it’s one that liberals are especially vulnerable to. I routinely read lefties who quote polls to show that the country agrees with us on pretty much everything. Voters support teachers, they support the environment, they support financial reform, they support gun control.

But this is a bad misreading of what polls can tell us. There are (at least) two related problems here:

Most polls don’t tell us how deeply people feel. Sure, lots of American think that universal background checks are a good idea, but they don’t really care that much. In a recent Gallup poll of most important problems, gun control ranked 22nd, with only 2 percent rating it their most important issue. Needless to say, though, gun owners are opposed to background checks, and they care a lot.

Most polls don’t tell us about the tradeoffs people are willing to make. In the abstract, sure, maybe a majority of Americans think we should make it harder to buy guns. But if there’s a real-world price to pay how willing are they to pay it? A few months ago, a Pew poll that pitted gun control against gun rights found that gun rights won by 52-46 percent.

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In other mass shootings, the shooters’ motivations have varied, from racism to religion to anti-religion. There has not been a single common theme, except for one.

In almost all mass shooting situations, particularly at schools, the common theme is a gun-free zone, with the shooter being the only one armed person in the building for minutes or longer. And in each case, the shooter couldn’t care less about the gun-free nature of the building, and if anything, was drawn to such a location…

So what is to be done? Should we do away with gun-free zones, particularly at schools?

That certainly seems to be the lesson.

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Barack Obama should challenge Wayne LaPierre, longtime leader of the National Rifle Association, to a one-hour primetime televised debate

I’d ask the president what is more important—your understandable disdain for debates and your sense of propriety about the office you hold, or using the bully pulpit in a new way that just might bring results?…

Do you want to dismiss out-of-hand an approach that would almost certainly light a fire under millions of people to contact Congress?

Imagine the pre-debate publicity, as we watch LaPierre try and likely fail to wriggle free. If he defers to some publicity-seeking pro-gun congressman or Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who has bottled up dozens of bills designed to prevent gun violence, no problem. Then we’d read hundreds of stories about White House and the NRA going through debate prep, with their various arguments and counter-arguments hashed out in public. We’d have debate over the moderator, ground rules and sponsorship. The press would love every minute of it, while keeping the gun safety issue front and center for a change.

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For the liberal, every societal problem has a state-issued remedy waiting to be administered over the objections of a reactionary Republican. But just because you have a tremendous amount of emotion and frustration built up around a certain cause doesn’t make your favored legislation any more practical, effective or realistic. It doesn’t change the fact that owning a gun is a civil right, that the preponderance of owners are not criminals, or that there are 300 million guns out there…

[D]espite all the administration’s fearmongering, and as horrifying as any shooting is, gun violence has precipitously declined over the decades without any meaningful federal law being enacted. This likely tells us there are a number of other social currents driving this kind violence. The Left believes the number of guns is at fault, rather than social ills—since no person can be evil, only a victim. So the debate takes on the same old contours, and we focus on firearms and nothing else. That kind of political debate only makes it less likely that anything good will happen.

When we politicize a tragedy, it is immediately sucked into a broader ideological conflict. Then the conservative (at least when out of power) will see (I believe, rightfully) an intrusive agenda that is a perpetual slippery slope. (Can you blame them when they hear: No, we don’t want confiscation, but look at Australia did! We don’t want confiscation, but isn’t that Second Amendment interpretation so stupid!?) Trust me, it’s not unreasonable to treat liberal policies as if they have a tendency for mission creep and unwieldy expansion.

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[W]e shouldn’t play the shooters’ game. These acts are dramatic because they are unusual (not as unusual as we’d prefer), extraordinary because they are unrepresentative of the contemporary experience rather than representative of it. Those of us who were around for the Clinton years do not recall them as a time of bloodthirsty savagery, but in terms of being shot to death, Americans are about twice as safe today as they were in the early 1990s. We are not, in fact, a polity dissolving into chaos. Our streets aren’t filled with blood — they’re filled with mediocrity. Politicians sell you emergency when they want to take something away from you. Terrorists are not the only people who know that a scared population is a compliant population…

Violent crime in the United States is a concentrated phenomenon. Chicago had 407 murders last year, New York had 328, Los Angeles 259, Philadelphia 248. All too high, to be sure, but in 1990 New York had 2,245 murders. In any of those cities — and in practically every big U.S. city excluding Detroit and, possibly, Baltimore — you could spend six months visiting and never see anything that looked like violent crime unless you went looking for it. That’s cold comfort to the poor people in North Philly or South Chicago, but the fact is that even in our cities most Americans are literally miles away from real crime…

Our ordinary crime is largely the result of ordinary failures: failed families, failed schools, failed communities, failed police departments, failed penal institutions, failed parole systems. Even our dramatic crimes are mostly rooted in ordinary failures: those failed families, again, failed mental-health practices, etc. A scary-looking rifle is visually arresting, a fact that tells us something about the weapon, and maybe something about us. It doesn’t tell us anything useful about the actual challenges facing the United States in 2015.

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“How on earth could he compile 13 guns? How can that happen, you know? They talk about gun laws, they talk about gun control. Every time something like this happens they talk about it and nothing is done. I’m not trying to say that’s to blame for what happened, but if Chris hadn’t been able to get ahold of 13 guns it wouldn’t have happened.”