If the mentally ill can buy guns, the nation is crazy


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.

— From the St. Louis Dispatch

 

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