There is no more timely discussion to be had in America today than that of firearms and mental health. As a mental health professional, it seemed an opportune time to have a civil and thoughtful discussion on this topic. The purpose is to provide more light than heat.
No individual right established by the U.S. Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights is subject to utilitarian ethics. So, the fact that someone engages in a mass shooting, on average, four times a year has no bearing on the Right encoded by the Second Amendment. Even as calls for mass confiscation ring through the land, most not realizing that of all the acts possible by the Government, that is the one that is strictly forbidden. In fact, calls for such by any member of our Republic at the Government level in any way other than by amending our Constitution, should be named for what they are: the ramblings of domestic enemies approaching the level of treason.
“But, but, but…” they stammer, “we need to do something. Insane individuals should be prevented from acquiring weapons! We need tougher laws!” It is an article of faith that these individuals are insane. Could they not simply be malevolent?
It is no a known fact that Devin Patrick Kelley who shot and killed 26 people and 20 injured in Texas was previously denied a firearm carry permit and lied on the background check to purchase the murder weapon.
So, the first question… how did he pass the background check? He shouldn’t have passed the background check when he had a conviction (misdemeanor or not) for domestic violence while in the Air Force, regardless of his lying on the form. But despite his history of domestic abuse and questionable behavior involving firearms, Kelley was able to purchase the Ruger AR-556 rifle he allegedly used in the shooting from a store in San Antonio, Texas, according to law enforcement officials. There was no disqualifying information in the background check conducted as required for the purchase. In essence, the Air Force violated the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the Lautenberg Amendment by not reporting Kelley’s previous record.
This fact raises the specter that the Air Force may be protecting dangerous soldiers, since he was given a Bad Conduct Discharge as opposed to a Dishonorable Discharge, and his conviction was not recorded in the system. So, if the laws had operated as intended and not been short-changed by the Air Force incompetence or malfeasance, he would not have had weapons, at least not legally.
Was Devin Patrick Kelly insane? There are those who would say so, claiming as evidence the act. As we cannot examine a dead man let us look at his mental health history.
Ms. Edwards, an Air Force staff sergeant, said the military had tried counseling and tough love, but nothing seemed to work. When punished for poor performance, Mr. Kelley would cry, scream and shake with rage, vowing to kill his superiors, she recalled. His temper was so unsettling that she warned others in the squadron to go easy on him or he was likely to come back and “shoot up the place.” We now know that while Mr. Kelley awaited court-martial, the Air Force sent him to a civilian psychiatric hospital in Santa Teresa, N.M., where, according to local emergency dispatch records, he was given medication for depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and was considered a “high-risk patient.”
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation regarding shooters.
- Ann Coulter has long made the case that mental illness was blindingly clear in the case of Seung-Hui Cho, who committed mass murder at Virginia Tech.
- Jared Loughner showed signs of schizophrenia for at least five years before he shot up a Tucson shopping mall.
- James Holmes was being treated for mental illness long before his massacre at the Aurora movie theater.
In the Holmes case, it was clear to Adam Lanza’s mother — nearly the only person who had contact with him — that he was mentally disturbed and had violent fantasies – but that was not the diagnoses he carried, which were Asperger’s Syndrome and Sensory Integration Syndrome.
Nevertheless, any mental health professional worth his salt can tell you that there is no doubt Devin Kelley was suffering from mental illness.
Ann Coulter makes the case that the emptying of the mental institutions of the 1970s with the advent of effective medications for schizophrenia, bipolar and various levels of psychosis, correlates with mass shootings, as opposed to gun ownership. With the estimates of gun ownership in the United States of between 350 million to 700 million firearms in private hands and only 36 mass shootings per decade, the statistics show that gun ownership is among the safest human activity ever. By contrast, mass shootings went up ten-fold with the emptying of the medical institutions to their present level.
What to do? If the goal is the prevention of mass shooting by making sure those who are mentally unfit should not possess weapons, this task is presently beyond the ability of any human-designed system. Distinguishing the potentially lethal shooter from all other presenting patients is almost impossible and does not curtail illegally acquiring a weapon.
Remove all weapons then? Do we honestly believe if we removed all weapons, that alternatives would not be used, and to great effect? In France, where almost none qualify for a concealed weapon, on the evening of 14 July 2016, a 19-ton cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people and the injury of 458 others. No gun needed.
There is the suggestion that a mental health exam should be required prior to owning weapons. Beyond being a form of prior restraint and unconstitutional, it would not work and would be prone to abuse in denying the right to keep and bear arms to those fully capable of exercising it. Doctors are poor gatekeepers relative to this issue. In this context, anyone not capable of exercising this right, should be committed, as they are a danger to self and others, are they not? But even if a carve-out were constitutional, given the prevalence of mental illness (1 in 2 over the lifetime) we would be marking tens of millions of harmless patients as potential threats in a federal database, which history has shown would be prone abuse, with lack of privacy and resulting in a permanent stigma.
As a mental health professional with a strongly-held belief in our core Constitutional values, I must conclude that the old saying remains true, the only thing that stops a bad man with a gun, is a good man with a gun.