Perhaps you’ve heard this one before: A young male with obvious mental health issues and previous episodes of violence is able to legally obtain a gun and ends up killing multiple people.
Americans are shocked, saddened and glued to their televisions. We mourn. We might send a donation for families of the victims. We watch our president deplore the violence and hail the heroism of those who tried to stop the shooter. Then we get caught back up in our daily lives as the horror of what happened fades — until it occurs again a few months later somewhere else.
This cycle of violence has to stop.
There are multiple reasons why one tragedy after another keeps piling up. The most obvious is our inability to identify, treat and/or commit people with mental health issues and a history of violence. Oh, and the fact these same people are legally able to continue buying guns.
Gun ownership is probably irreversibly embedded in American culture. Wikipedia estimates that there are 9 guns for every 10 people in the United States. That means there are more than 200 million guns in this country, the overwhelming majority of which are owned and operated legally and safely by their owners.
Nonetheless, we have to find a way to prevent people with mental health issues and a history of violence from gaining access to guns.
In the case of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, information on his criminal and mental health history were not in the database that was searched when he legally bought his shotgun earlier this month. There are two primary reasons for this: privacy laws and faulty communication between databases.
In an era when every purchase we make or every website we visit is noted and used by merchants, when all of our phone calls are monitored by the federal government, and when our smartphones can give away our location, this lapse of information is simply unacceptable. Clearly, the technology exists to develop databases that would interact and provide this information.
It also is unacceptable that information pertaining to mental health issues as well as violence is often not entered into databases in the name of privacy and that it’s so difficult to involuntarily commit someone to an institution. There was a time in this country when it was too easy to commit people involuntarily, and conditions in those facilities were horrid.
However, we have gone way, way too far in the other direction.
There are three immediate steps that would help prevent another Newtown or Navy Yard tragedy:
1) Amend privacy laws so that information is readily available on people with mental health issues and a history of violence.
2) Pass laws making it easier to involuntarily commit these people to institutions.
3) Suspend all gun sales until databases used for background checks are upgraded and integrated.
These steps, or measures like them, would be politically difficult to enact. Unfortunately, they are necessary if we want to prevent further tragedies. Otherwise, we will continue hearing the same, old, sad song over and over.