Another mass shooting — this time at the Washington Navy shipyard — has reignited a discussion about greater gun control. Unfortunately yet again a similar factor in this shooting — mental illness — is not getting the same intensity in terms of calling for a solution. Partly because the solutions are not readily available.
The shooter — 34-year-old former Navy reservist — reportedly had some mental health issues that in hindsight could have been and should have been addressed earlier.
There were plenty of warning signs, many of them pleas from the shooter himself. 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 reportedly stayed in various hotels to escape the voices coming through the walls.
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 even 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 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 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 and not exclude one from the other.
And part of that discussion may mean spending more on mental health treatment and changes in the law addressing such hot button topics like involuntary commitments and sharing of mental health data with law enforcement in a timely manner.
Just as reasonable gun control efforts can require background checks so must the mental health field relent on issues of treatment and privacy.