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Drawing a Bead on Mental Health Issues

Drawing a Bead on Mental Health Issues

By Carl M. Cannon - September 23, 2013

WASHINGTON -- "Have a nice evening," the night watchman told me pleasantly at the end of Monday's workday. Moments later, the parking attendant smiled and mentioned the nice weather.

Washington is a friendlier city than its reputation, and ordinarily I appreciate such good cheer. It seemed wrong this week. Twelve families said goodbye to their loved ones that morning—and never again saw them alive—because of a dangerous man in deteriorating mental health armed with a gun and a grievance that made sense only to him.

But how are we supposed to act? Is this really the new normal?

At the White House, President Obama ordered the flags at half-staff, and offered a few consoling words before launching into his previously planned attack on Republicans. If business as usual seemed inappropriate, the lockdown of the U.S. Senate buildings and postponing that night’s Washington Nationals game didn’t feel right, either.

The inevitable debate about gun control erupted while bodies still were lying where they fell. Political commentator David Frum, a conservative intellectual who favors stronger gun laws, mocked gun rights supporters by tweeting out five “rules” of the debate, starting with this one: “It is ‘ghoulish’ to suggest in any way that the easy availability of guns might in any way enable gun slaughter.”

Frum’s sarcasm was denounced by many of his 96,000 Twitter followers, some of whom felt that what was “ghoulish” about his tweets was their timing. Frum’s reply came in a follow-up column in the Daily Beast titled “Let’s Not Wait to Talk About Gun Control.”

Few were waiting. Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen passed around an anti-NRA editorial cartoon depicting an AR-15 assault rifle with the U.S. Capitol and Washington Navy Yard in its sights. The problem was that the only AR-15s used Monday were those carried by the cops. Aaron Alexis used a shotgun, a weapon no serious federal legislator has proposed banning.

Gun rights supporters also noted that military installations in this country are already the “gun free zones” championed by gun control advocates; i.e., the only people armed on the base are military police.

That point was met with a salient counterargument: After the Newtown shooting, NRA officials called for armed guards in America’s schools. But the Navy Yard had those kinds of guards, and they didn’t stop the killer. The FBI says he shot one of them—and rearmed himself with the downed officer’s handgun.

Affixing blame can be a first step in solving social problems. And so we began examining holes in the Navy’s system of background checks. It was also learned that local police—in Seattle, Fort Worth, Newport, R.I.— responded to instances in which Alexis had fired his gun in anger or made disturbing comments to authorities.

In 2004, he shot out the tires of a car driven by men he didn’t know. Alexis’ father told Seattle police his son had stress-related mental health issues. Alexis himself told of his anger-induced “blackout.” But he was never charged after prosecutors lost the case files.

In 2010, Alexis fired a rifle through his ceiling into the Fort Worth apartment of a woman with whom he’d been feuding over noise. She told responding police she was “terrified” of him and that she was certain he’d done it deliberately. Officials instead chose to believe his cockamamie story of cleaning his gun while cooking, the gun discharging accidentally.

Last month, Alexis told police in Newport of “harassment” by three mysterious strangers who he claimed were following him from hotel to hotel and keeping him awake at night with “some sort of microwave machine” that sent vibrations into his body.

The officer who took this information said he advised Alexis “to stay away” from the nonexistent individuals following him.” The officer’s sergeant notified the Navy, which was already treating him for insomnia brought on by the voices he was hearing. For now, that is where the trail ends.

Would things have ended up differently if Seattle police and prosecutors had done their jobs? Should the Navy, which discharged Alexis, allowed him to keep his security clearance—thus enabling him to hire on with a government contractor? Perhaps, but if he hadn’t shot up the Navy Yard, where would he and his shotgun have ended up? A movie theater? A schoolyard?

So yes, let’s talk about gun control. Let’s also talk about anti-terrorism measures and how a government that perceives a need to have more than a million citizens with national security clearances is going to wave people like Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis through the background check process.

And let’s talk about an even more uncomfortable subject. Everyone who came into contact with Aaron Alexis noticed something was wrong with him, and his condition was worsening. He was allowed to travel and work and own firearms. It’s the American way.

Is there a better answer? That’s what Seattle residents are asking themselves—and I’m not talking about the long-lost paperwork in the 2004 gun case.

Four days before the Navy Yard shooting, a homeless schizophrenic from California killed a popular Seattle college professor and seriously wounded his girlfriend. The killer told police that the couple was in a gang “that was stalking him and trying to kill him,” a group he said was “holding several people hostage in South Seattle.”

So he savagely attacked them while they walked home from a soccer game. He didn’t use a gun. He used a knife.

No one asks to be mentally ill. But if we’re going to talk honestly about the lessons of the Navy Yard shooting, we might begin addressing a basic question only partially related to firearms: Where do the rights of the mentally ill end and the rights of society begin? 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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