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WHAT OTHERS SAY: If the mentally ill can buy guns, the nation is crazy

Saturday, September 21, 2013 | 6:07 p.m. CDT; updated 6:49 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 26, 2013

This is a wholly subjective observation, but there appears to be far less shock and outrage over Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard than in previous mass-shooting incidents.

This is where we are as a nation: Seeking a useful metric for horror that we refuse to deal with otherwise.

What is the proper standard? The number of victims? The FBI defines “mass murder” as the killing of four or more people, not including the perpetrator, in a single incident. Mother Jones magazine has compiled a database of 67 such incidents in the United States since 1982, including five this year. By this standard, the Navy Yard incident, with 12 victims, is the worst this year.

But it hardly stacks up to the April 2007 incident at Virginia Tech University, which saw 32 innocent people killed. Factor in age, innocence and total abject horror, the worst was last December’s Newtown, Conn., shooting of 20 small children and seven adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A dozen people dead at a military facility? Bad, but by this grim calculus, not Newtown-bad.

But of course it is. One death is as bad, as 12 is as bad as 32. Stalin’s rule does not apply: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.”

Perhaps the Navy Yard killings don’t resonate widely because the incident does not fall into neat “I told you so” categories for either the right or the left. Outlawing handguns or assault weapons wouldn’t have helped; the shooter, Aaron Alexis, 34, used a Remington 870 — “America’s shotgun,” according to Buckmasters magazine. He may also have picked up a handgun from one of his victims.

Nor does the NRA’s “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” platitude apply. There were lots of good guys with guns around the Navy Yard, but they could not get to Alexis before he took his shotgun out of his bag, assembled it and began shooting.

So the reaction to the Navy Yard shootings has focused on two issues: One, the security failures that allowed someone with a history of mental illness to obtain a “secret” clearance to work as a contractor in a military installation, and two, how was someone with that kind of mental health history able to pass a federal background check when he bought his shotgun in Virginia?

These will be useful questions to answer, but make no mistake: Answering them will be fighting the last war. The profile of the next mass shooter — and there will be one — almost surely will not match Alexis’ profile, except for this: He will be out of his mind. One way or the other, mass murderers are always crazy.

The nation will never be able to keep all of its crazy people from acquiring weapons. They can steal them from their mothers, if necessary, as did Adam Peter Lanza, the Newtown shooter. But the nation ought to be able to come together around the proposition that people with a history of mental illness shouldn’t be able to buy weapons without a background check.

Federal law and some states have such laws, but most require a recent history of commitment for mental illness. There is now talk in Congress that the Navy Yard shootings create common ground not only for more stringent mental health background checks, but for more training in recognizing problems.

No laws will work if dots aren’t connected, as they were not connected in the Alexis case. And both sides of the gun control debate are wary. One side thinks it might foreclose the opportunity for broader background checks. The other worries that it would open the doors for broader background checks.

But it’s a debate worth having. If the nation can’t come together on the simple proposition that it should do everything possible to keep mentally ill people from acquiring or possessing weapons, then sanity has fled us all.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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Comments

Michael Williams September 21, 2013 | 6:44 p.m.

Problem is this:

We are a society that likes to sue. We are a society with lawyers that like to sue.

Do YOU want to be the person who labels another person mentally-ill? You want to put that in print?

Label a person mentally ill because you don't want them to have a gun will backfire quite rapidly when you get sued and it's found they aren't ill at all. And you'll get sued if you are the person who is supposed to be labeling a person mentally ill, but don't, and they kill someone.

There is no way out of this quandary. There is no solution. We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't. Our legal system created this quandary and keeps it alive today.

We react only after the fact, then make new rules and laws hoping to cover a "loophole", only to find human behavioral chaos always wins.

PS: If you are an attorney who wishes to tell me that everyone deserves his/her day in court, then tell me if you have ever advised a client "It isn't worth it. You'll spend more than you'll get."

Because if you've ever said these words, you do NOT agree everyone deserves their day in court. You also just told me "This isn't about justice."

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 22, 2013 | 6:17 a.m.

Technically, a person is only mentally ill if a trained medical professional, specializing in such matters, examines the person and concludes - using an established set of guidelines (updated periodically) - that mental illness is present. Even the legal profession and our courts agree on that.

Wow! Doesn't that give the medical professional a lot of power? Well, many varieties of medical professionals can be said to have a lot of "power," such as those who perform heart bypasses and even those who are able alter a person's physical appearance.

Unfortunately a large number of persons suffering from mental illnesses remain undiagnosed.

Persons suffering from the category of mental illnesses classed as "affective disorders" typically pose little threat to anyone except themselves; those who ended up with these highly publicized shooting sprees suffered from personality disorders, a different class of mental diseases.

A point which seems to get buried in all the ensuing sensation when one of these mass killings occurs is that it seems there were those who KNEW the perp showed signs of mental instability prior to the rampage. That's sad.

But it SO much easier to talk of banning firearms, isn't it?

The world is filled with solutions to problems which [the proposed solutions] are simple, elegant and wrong.

PS: A retired psychiatrist (a specialist in psychemotherapy) who was and may still be living in Columbia, described his medical practice thus: "I do not claim to cure persons of mental illness. My goal is to restore them, individually, to the point where they can function as do other persons, so that they may contribute to society."

[Hopefully, Williams will see this post.]

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 22, 2013 | 9:58 a.m.

Correction: Should read "psychochemotherapy," the treatment of mental diseases using drugs.

(Report Comment)

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