Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Washington’s horrific shooting: What if?

Last month, in the wake of a horrific mass shooting in Hialeah in which six people were killed before police shot the gunman to death, we lamented all the things that could have prevented it, positing: “If only . . .”

Unfortunately, in the wake of the horrific shootings Monday at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the list has to get longer. The most obvious, of course, is: If only Aaron Alexis had not packed up a gun, gone to the Navy Yard, where he had security clearance to enter and, from a perch on the balcony, shot 12 people to death.

But that’s what he did before he himself was killed by a police officer’s bullets.

Despite Alexis’ history of acting out and of violence, no one was able to put the pieces of this disturbing puzzle of a man together — until it was much too late:

•  If only there were a more seamless and comprehensive process for, first, getting mentally ill citizens the help they need and, second, stronger reporting requirements. This is what President Obama proposed after December’s carnage at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Alexis sought help for insomnia at two VA hospitals, told other practitioners that he heard voices, accused people of stalking him and tormenting him with vibrations. But each time, encounters with health practitioners happened in a vacuum.

•  If only hard-line U.S. senators hadn’t killed a proposal hammered out by a Republican and a Democrat that would have prevented criminals and people adjudicated to be a danger to themselves and others because of mental illness from legally buying guns. Had they turned this sensible proposal into law it might not have prevented Alexis from obtaining the Remington pump-action shotgun, but going forward, it would have been much more difficult for others like him to do so.

•  If only Alexis had been charged along the way as he exhibited what Navy officials called a “pattern of misbehavior.” Alexis had been a naval reservist. In the minds of police officers in two different cities, the fact that he fired a gun in anger — once through a ceiling in Fort Worth, Texas, and again at a car’s tires in Seattle — didn’t rise to the level of prosecution. Alexis wasn’t charged in either incident. Had he been charged, his name would have been flagged at the Virginia gun store during a background check. But there was no flag and, therefore, no reason not to sell Alexis that shotgun.

•  If only Alexis have been given a general discharge as opposed to an honorable one. His commanders were well aware of bad acts on his part: insubordination, traffic violations and being absent without leave, this last because he spent two nights in a Georgia jail after a bar fight. But he got a pass. Nothing he did rose to level of alarm. Had he not received an honorable discharge, he never would have gotten security clearance to work at Defense Department sites as an independent contractor.

•  If only after this latest massacre — let us count the ways: Aurora, Colo.; Virginia Tech; Newtown, Conn.; Tucson, Ariz. — lawmakers refused to be cowed by the NRA; the most common-sense gun laws are no longer skewed into assaults on the Second Amendment; the stigma of mental illness goes away, as does the reluctance of friends, relatives and even mental-health practitioners to be proactive. If this nation can rally around both safety and our constitutional rights, the horrors of such massacres might be prevented, not lamented.

But only if we act.

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