Another mass shooting — this time at the Washington Navy shipyard — has reignited a discussion about greater gun control. Yet again, mental illness is not getting the attention necessary to find solutions, partly because those solutions are not as clear.
The shooter — a 34-year-old former Navy reservist — reportedly had some mental health issues that should have been addressed earlier.
There were plenty of warning signs. Aaron Alexis told Newport, R.I., police about a month ago he was being followed by people using “some sort of microwave machine” on him and preventing him from sleeping.
He also sought treatment from the Department of Veteran Affairs for paranoia. He knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t helping.
To what degree mental health played into this incident will be difficult to quantify for a variety of reasons. First, there are privacy concerns, and families have complained they are blocked from getting even basic information necessary for them to help. The law requires permission from the patient before revealing such information, and many times they are the ones who do not recognize or admit to the problem.
Then there are mental health advocates who rightfully insist that being mentally ill doesn’t mean you are prone to violence. True enough, but let’s look at the numbers. A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 10.4 million people experienced serious mental illness in the previous year. Nearly half of them did not receive treatment and many of them were homeless, crime victims, suicides or imprisoned.
Gun control advocates now are pointing to the ease with which Alexis was able to buy a shotgun even with his mental health record. Even though Alexis was seeking treatment and possibly diagnosed with mental illness, this does not disqualify someone from purchasing a gun.
While it’s true federal law prohibits the sale of guns to people who have been declared mentally unfit, it is a legal standard only a court can decide. Under the law, a diagnosis of mental illness — even voluntary commitment — does not prevent the purchase of a gun.
So while some gun rights activists would like to divert discussion away from gun control to mental health treatment or restrictions as the cure-all for gun violence, we need a robust discussion on parallel paths that do not exclude one from the other.