I hate to enter the gun control controversy because both sides are in hardened positions and neither has much of a chance of influencing the other side’s thinking. However, I am more than happy to enter the controversy surrounding the mass killings in Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood, Columbine, Springfield, and Clackamas Town Center. All of these, with the exception of one, have a common thread and it is not the use of automatic weapons. Despite the impression left by the media and the gun control advocates, none of these tragedies involved automatic weapons. Possession of an automatic weapon is confined to those who obtain an expensive federal license after a vigorous background check or gang bangers populating most every major metropolitan area that have the most restrictive gun control laws; e.g. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., etc.
No, the common thread is that each involved a killer who was known to the mental health community and/or education community to be suffering from some form of mental illness, or bizarre behavior that should have raised red flags.
Newtown – Adam Lanza had been treated by a psychiatrist and was considered so dangerous that his Mother warned sitters not to turn their back on him and had told him that she was going to have him committed.
Aurora – James Eagan Holmes was under treatment by a psychiatrist who was so worried about the danger he posed that she contacted local police.
Tucson – Jared Lee Loughner began a long slide into mental illness as early as high school. According to Time Magazine, “When classes began at Pima Community College last year, Loughner’s behavior frightened fellow students from Day One. ‘He had this hysterical kind of laugh, laughing to himself,’ says Benjamin McGahee, his math professor. He would say nonsensical things about ‘denying math.’ Says McGahee: ‘One lady in the back of the classroom said she was scared for her life, literally.’”
Fort Hood – Nidal Malik Hasan. The Wikipedia summary of Mr. Hasan notes: “During the six years that Hasan worked as an intern and resident at Walter Reed Medical Center, colleagues and superiors were deeply concerned about his inappropriate behavior and comments, described by some as ‘paranoid’ and ‘schizoid’. The 39-year-old Hasan was not married and was described as socially isolated. He was described as stressed by his work with soldiers and upset about their accounts of warfare. At Fort Hood, he took an apartment away from other officers. Two days before the shooting, he gave away much of his belongings to a neighbor.
Prior to the shooting, Hasan had expressed extremist views. An FBI investigation concluded that his emails with the late Imam Anwar al-Awlaki [the known al Qaeda terrorist leader] were related to his authorized professional research and that he was not a threat.”
Columbine – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Eric Harris was under psychiatric care and was taking the anti-depressant Luvox. Dylan Klebold’s medical records remain sealed but he was alleged to have been taking the anti- depressants Paxil and Zoloft. The Denver Post reported: “A Columbine High School teacher worried about Eric Harris’ and Dylan Klebold’s disturbing essays had alerted their parents about their class assignments a month before they opened fire on their classmates, a school official said Thursday. The teacher’s concerns were one of many warning signs raised in the months preceding the assault. News of the writings surfaced the day of the attack, and critics questioned why the teacher took no action.”
Springfield – Kip Kinkel. Kinkel had been treated by a psychologist for several months but his parents terminated his treatments. He had also previously been expelled from high school for bringing loaded weapons into the school. The expulsion was immediately preceding Kinkel’s rampage. The gun was supplied by Kinkel’s friend Korey Ewert who during interviews leading up to the expulsion, according to a report by Det. Rodrick Raynor, told police and school officials that Kinkel wanted the gun to kill people. During the trial, medical professionals testified that Kinkel masked his schizophrenia.
Clackamas Town Center. Jacob Roberts proves to be the exception to the rule. Mr. Roberts had neither a history of criminal behavior or known mental illness. In the aftermath of his rampage at the Clackamas Town Center Mall, most mental health professionals conclude that he suffered from some form of severe mental health concerns given the complete randomness of his actions.
Curiously, despite the consistent evidence of prior knowledge of mental health issues leading up to these shootings, the study undertaken by Vice-president Joe Biden at the request of President Barack Obama, paid scant attention to the mental health aspects, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on gun control measures. Such proposals are like one hand clapping – they insure that nothing will be accomplished.
Even the proposals surrounding tighter background checks ignored the obvious – that current background checks are deficient because of limitations on disclosure of mental health issues under the rules adopted by the federal government under the Health Insurance Portability and Protection Act (HIPPA). While there is a current data base the allows sellers to determine if there are criminal convictions or spousal or dependent abuse orders, any reference to mental health issues are limited to adjudicated mental health confinement issues or criminal convictions involving mental health issues. Not a single one of the shooters referenced above would have turned up in the data base.
I appreciate that there needs to be strong protective measures limiting the dissemination of health information without the consent of the patient. But there are, and need to be, exceptions to the rule and those exceptions need to be extended to a centralized database if we wish to prevent future Newtown rampages. A recent letter to the editor by Phoenix based psychiatrist, Dr. Horace Whittington, provided a simple guide to accomplishing this goal.
“As a follow-up to your editorial Saturday, ‘The mental-health angle,’ the emphasis on early identification of potentially dangerous people requires some new social arrangements.
“Fortunately, a model exists. Most states require professionals to report any suspicion of child abuse to Child Protective Services. Importantly, they are granted immunity from legal action if the report turns out to be erroneous.
“Because mental illness is not diagnosed by objective means, such as blood tests, or X-rays, the experience, judgment and conscientiousness of health professional serves as the basis for diagnosis.
“A law requiring professionals to report potential dangerousness to a new public-health agency, staffed by highly qualified mental-health officials, would result in a careful assessment of dangerousness.”
Add to Dr. Whittington’s proposal a centralized database comparable to what is now available for criminal convictions, and gun sellers would have a reasonable but not perfect method of keeping sales of firearms out of those who demonstrate a danger to themselves or others.
Dr. Whittington’s proposal is not a perfect solution but it provides an avenue for greater success than those recommended by Messrs. Obama and Biden. Let’s remember that in several of the instances referenced above, the weapons used were stolen by the shooters and no amount of background checks or gun sale restrictions are ever going to deter such instances. The proliferation of fully automatic weapons amongst gang bangers testifies to the fact that gun laws – even gun prohibitions – are not a deterrent to criminals bent on violence.