The National Rifle Association's message following Friday's mass shooting at Santa Fe High School was simple: Guns aren't to blame. The gun rights group has held that same position in the aftermath of each of the 22 school shootings that took place over the first five months of 2018. But the NRA blaming the Santa Fe shooting on everything from Ritalin to the media shows it's escalating its attempts to sidestep the issue at hand, gun policy experts say.
"[The NRA] is sounding increasingly desperate to find something to point at other than a firearm," Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress, tells Bustle.
The NRA has been become increasingly political since the late '70s, while simultaneously moving farther to the right on gun policy. While the message that guns aren’t to blame for a school shooting in which a student killed eight of his peers and two teachers isn’t new, some of the phenomena the NRA has pinned the shooting on this week have been updated to grab more people’s attention and deflect from talking about guns themselves, two gun policy experts tell Bustle.
Days after a 17-year-old opened fire in Santa Fe High School in eastern Texas, gun control opponents were quick to divert attention away from guns. NRATV host Coloin Noir claimed that mass shooters were "a creation of our so-called progressive culture and media" in a video posted on Sunday.
The NRA's newly appointed president, Oliver North, took a similar tack by blaming the shooting on a vague "culture of violence." But his message took an unexpected turn when he suggested that the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication Ritalin is turning young men into mass shooters.
"They've been drugged in many cases. Nearly all of these perpetrators are male, and they're young teenagers in most cases, and they've come through a culture where violence is commonplace," North said Sunday in an appearance on Fox News. "Many of these young boys have been on Ritalin since they were in kindergarten. Now, I am certainly not a doctor, I'm a Marine, but I can see those kinds of things happening."
Blaming school shootings on Ritalin plays into recent concerns about the rise in ADHD diagnoses, says Alexandra Filindra, associate professor of political science and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A startling new study in the medical journal Pediatrics found an increase in children overdosing on ADHD medication. The number of young women taking medication for ADHD also rose 344 percent over the last decade, according to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
"[The NRA has] a reserve of very similar arguments that they pull out of the bag every time that they need them, and then they slightly adapt them to conditions that are prevalent in a particular time and place," Filindra tells Bustle. "So the Ritalin thing is new because there are issues with ADHD drugs and hyperactivity in kids that people are concerned about today. Tomorrow it’s going to be something else that is prevalent in the news."
A 2001 study by University of Kansas researchers Donald Haider‐Markel and Mark Joslyn found that roughly 10 percent of Kansas adults who were polled blamed the Columbine school shooting on society or cultural problems, while an additional 9 percent blamed violence in the media. Only 3 percent of respondents blamed weak gun control laws at the time. There's no comparable study looking at where adults lay the blame for the Santa Fe shooting (or the Parkland shooting, for that matter), but these experts say it's clear the NRA is trying to bolster the belief that America's culture — presumably progressive culture — causes mass shootings.
Still, Parsons says she has a hard time believing that even those gun rights advocates voicing the most random distractions from the issue of firearms actually stand by what they're saying. She points to the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, who claimed that Friday's attack might not have happened if Santa Fe High School had fewer doors.
"You have the necessary exits for fire, of course, but we have to funnel our students into our schools so we can put eyes on them," Patrick said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. Parsons says that comment falls "in the realm of the absurd."
While the NRA and politicians like Patrick, who've received money from the organization, double down on any excuse for school shootings other than guns, studies show that many gun owners don't agree with that messaging. About 77 percent of gun owners favored background checks on private gun sales in 2017, while 48 percent favored a ban on military-style assault weapons, according to a Pew Research Center study.
The NRA strongly opposes both proposals, instead deflecting the conversation around recent mass shootings to scapegoats like Ritalin and violence in the media.
"The more they go down this road, the more they’re going to end up backing themselves into a corner where their message really resonates with a very small group of conservatives," Parsons says.