We can’t have all the freedom we insist on in this country. We can’t have near total access to guns and no way to track people with mental illness — along with a system for treatment so riddled with holes that’s barely a system at all. The combination — our approach to guns crossed with our approach to mental illness — is deadly. And however unlikely it is that the senseless Washington Navy Yard massacre will actually change anything, I have to howl one more time.
In hindsight, Aaron Alexis was a walking alarm bell. He called the police to a Rhode Island hotel room where he was staying in August to say that mysterious people connected to an argument he’d had at an airport were “harassing him with a microwave machine and ‘speaking to him through the wall.’ “ He’d been investigated by police in Texas for shooting through his ceiling into his neighbor’s apartment and by police in Seattle for shooting out a car’s tires. About the second incident, he said he couldn’t remember what had happened because he’d blacked out. Alexis was a military veteran with an honorable discharge, though he almost got a lower classification for a “pattern of misbehavior.” He went to a Veterans Affairs hospital asking for treatment, but he said his problem was insomnia, and no one flagged him for commitment or continued treatment, as far as we now know.
Lots of dots, never connected. To members of Congress, the missed warning signs are reasons to tighten the process for receiving a security clearance at military installations. But that doesn’t even count as a finger in the dike. Let’s say tightening the rules for clearance would make the Navy Yard safer — what about everywhere else Alexis could have opened fire? There is a much broader, deeper question at the root of this tragedy: Why are we so attached to the right to own a gun that we allow people with criminal histories and mental illness to carry them, while doing nowhere near enough to make sure they get the care they need?
By now, what’s most depressing is how familiar it feels. After the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn.; and Aurora, Colo.; and Tucson, Ariz.; and Virginia Tech — all by young men with untreated mental illness — we had the same national debate. I want to make sure to say, as I always do, that mentally ill people very rarely unleash terrible violence. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (Disclosure: It’s named in memory of my grandfather) objects to focusing on people with psychiatric illness in the wake of shootings, because “mental illness by itself is not statistically related to violence.” Untreated mental illness, however, is a risk factor. Mother Jones did a service in 2012 by analyzing 62 mass shootings, 25 of them in the past seven years. The central finding:
Nearly 80 percent of the perpetrators in these 62 cases obtained their weapons legally. Acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them, with at least 36 of the killers committing suicide on or near the scene. (Seven others died in police shootouts they had little hope of surviving, regarded by some experts as “suicide by cop.”) And according to additional research we completed recently, at least 38 of them displayed signs of possible mental health problems prior to the killings.