These well-known killers represent only a handful of the American mass shooters of recent years. Before their rampages, how others considered them varied greatly, ranging from reasonably normal, well-regarded, and kind (Kazmierczak), to acutely peculiar, if more or less nonthreatening (Lanza, Holmes, and Page), to outright scary (Loughner and Cho). That each was deeply and dangerously mentally ill, able to emerge from some dark hell borne in their own psyche to slaughter innocents, became obvious only after they acted out.
And every one of them was legally eligible to purchase or access the guns they used without restriction.
That the “mentally ill” should be prohibited from purchasing, owning, or possessing firearms seems self-evident; in fact, as I’ve tracked commentary online, in particular that discussing specific acts of individual shooters such as Lanza, Holmes, and Loughner (being the most recent in our collective social memory) that “they never should have been allowed access to weapons in the first place” because of their obvious mental illness and history of bizarre and often threatening behavior is oft-repeated. This has been true in law enforcement-based forums, where most or all of the commenters either work, or are otherwise engaged, in law enforcement. Technically, selling firearms to the severely mentally is already illegal. But there are a couple glaring problems with what seems to be an obvious and simple answer.
First, many states submit almost no mental health data to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Whether to participate or not is up to the individual states and only 27 authorize or require pertinent mental health data be reported. Of those that do authorize or require the reporting such data to NICS, most report only a very tiny percentage of patients. Individual states may also have reporting laws/rules by which they determine who can and cannot own or possess firearms. Expect filling the reporting gaps to be a part of any discussion in the gun control debate.
The second serious problem in trying to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is how frustratingly vague or all-encompassing the definition might become. Generally, only those who have been adjudicated severely mentally ill by a court or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility can be found unfit and barred from getting a gun and, as most of us who work in or with law enforcement knows, the bar is set very high for either category. For the record, I’m okay with that; setting it too low potentially invites arbitrary and capricious declarations of unfitness, or involuntary detention and commitment, of the “everyday” mentally ill who pose no threat to themselves or others. Every neighborhood and community has its share of eccentrics, every family and social circle is touched by the mental illness of one or more of its members, but are they dangerous? Almost always the answer is “No.” And, statistically speaking, in any given year more than a quarter of all Americans will experience a diagnosable mental illness of some sort – and cops are not immune by a long shot. Should someone with an anxiety disorder, mild depression, or other disorder far afield from those common the truly dangerous be prohibited from keeping guns when their disease has never caused them to menace themselves or another? What if time on the trap range or a day pheasant hunting is what keeps them most grounded? Should we take away their shotgun?
Our fear is that, in the rush to figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of the truly dangerous, the rights and privacy of those who might suffer from mental illness but present no threat whatsoever will be trampled out of fear and overreaction. We are concerned about how vaguely the term “mentally ill” is tossed about in the current discussion, and that how mental illness is perceived and what it really is become confused. And we worry about the unintended consequences of poorly considered legislation, written by well-meaning if sometimes uninformed (or politically driven) lawmakers. Done wrong, it might drive those who could benefit most from receiving care away out of fear they might lose their privacy or certain rights. Many mental illnesses are very manageable - curable even - but patients need to be able to freely and confidently access care.