Mental illness: It's the 'elephant in room' in gun debate
September 19, 2013 12:48 AM | 1260 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Monday, a bad guy with a shotgun relieved two good guys, professional security guards, of their handguns and went on a killing rampage at the Washington Navy Yard. Before police ended the shooting spree and the shooter’s life, Aaron Alexis, 34, had ended the lives of 12 people, some while they were eating breakfast in the courtyard cafeteria of the supposedly secure facility.

Like many mass killers, Alexis, in retrospect, gave telltale warning signs of trouble to come, but these appear to have been missed, ignored or rationalized away. His career as a Navy Reservist was cut short when he was discharged after almost four years for general misconduct — reportedly insubordination, absenteeism and disorderly conduct. The Navy Reserve did him a favor by granting him an honorable discharge in January 2011.

Alexis had friends, unlike many mass murderers, and they said he was never without a gun.

In 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas, Alexis fired a shot into his floor at the apartment of a neighbor with whom he’d been feuding. His feeble excuse to police was that his hands were greasy from cooking and the gun discharged accidentally.

Six years earlier in Seattle, Alexis shot out the tires of a parked car being used by some construction workers he felt had disrespected him.

He came to the Washington Navy Yard to work on a computer project for a Defense Department subcontractor. Officials told the Associated Press that, since last month, he’d sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs for serious mental issues, including paranoia, insomnia and hearing voices. Yet he kept his clearance.

Clearly, there were signs of a slow-motion mental breakdown that culminated in the random murders of a dozen innocent people whose only offense was to show up for work.

And the tragedy shone a spotlight once again on the common thread in the recent wave of mass shootings. No, not on how the killers obtained their weapons of choice, or on the type of weapons they used or the number of bullets in their magazines. No, the common thread — and the one continuously ignored by gun-controllers and most of the major media, at least until this week — is the mental illness of the shooters. That, and the failure of society to diagnose them ahead of time and restrict their access to firearms. It is the elephant in the room when it comes to gun control.

It is an admittedly challenging problem. Combine the right to privacy, the wide range of mental illnesses (should being treated for, say, anorexia or sleepwalking be sufficient cause for losing one’s gun rights?), the decisions by lawmakers decades ago to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, and lawmakers’ continued preference for under-funding hospitals and treatment for such people — and it is easy to see why gun-controllers instead advocate changes that would make guns harder for law-abiding people to obtain but in most cases do nothing to prevent the mentally ill or criminally-minded from getting one.

President Obama ran into a brick wall with his gun-control proposals following the Newtown, Conn., shootings last fall. As usual, they focused on restricting gun-ownership rights and ignored the mental-health aspects of the debate. He indicated in an interview this week that he does not plan in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting to tackle the issue again.

However, if and when he does so, we would suggest that he would be taken more seriously if he finally were to propose better ways of separating dangerously mentally ill people from dangerous weapons. People like Aaron Alexis.

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