Gun debate focus shifts to mental health

Jeremy W. Peters and Michael Luo / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 19, 2013 at 05:00AM

Navy Yard shooting — Defense Department officials on Wednesday ordered a broad review of the procedures used to grant security clearances to employees and contractors, acknowledging that years of escalating warning signs about Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis went unheeded.

Top intelligence and military officials concede that issuing millions of people security clearances for up to 10 years without regular reviews is a serious safety risk.

Alexis, a former Navy reservist who struggled with mental-health problems and other issues, used his secret-level clearance to gain access to the secure Navy Yard compound Monday, where he fatally shot a dozen people before being killed by police.

“Obviously, something went wrong,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said as he announced the background-checks review, along with a separate assessment of security at U.S. military installations worldwide. “We will review everything and from that review, we would hope that we will find some answers to how we do it better.”

— The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Despite deep divisions that have kept Congress from passing new gun safety laws for almost two decades, there is one aspect of gun control on which many Democrats, Republicans and even the National Rifle Association agree: the need to give mental health providers better resources to treat dangerous people and prevent them from buying weapons.

Yet efforts to improve the country’s fraying mental health system to help prevent mass shootings have stalled on Capitol Hill, tied up in the broader fight over expanded background checks and limits on weapons sales.

Now the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by a man who authorities say showed telltale signs of mental illness is spurring a push to move ahead with bipartisan mental health policy changes. As a result, the new gun control debate may not be over weapons but could instead focus on whether to spend more money on mental health care.

Proponents again face a steep uphill push, given complex political dynamics, but they see an opening even if it remains unclear whether any changes under consideration could have headed off the latest attack, in which the authorities say Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist, bought the shotgun he used in Virginia.

“Given the clear connection between recent mass shootings and mental illness, the Senate should not delay bipartisan legislation that would help address this issue,” Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, wrote Wednesday in a joint statement to the Senate leadership. The legislation they are pushing, which was held up when a more sweeping gun measure was defeated earlier this year, despite receiving only two no votes, would establish programs to train teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness and how to defuse potentially violent situations.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader and a strong proponent of the failed Senate plan to expand the federal background check system, is resisting any move to advance the mental health provisions, fearing that it would be used as a fig leaf by those who oppose expanded checks while closing the door to weapons restrictions in the future. Both Ayotte and Begich opposed the gun control bill that failed in April.

Some gun rights advocates fear the opposite: that opening discussion on mental health could be a back door to a flood of new federal gun laws.

But several senators, like Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has pushed for tougher gun laws in the wake of last year’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., see mental health policy as a way forward.

“Mental health is really the key to unlocking this issue,” Blumenthal said. “I’ve become more and more convinced that we should establish the mental health issue as our common ground.”

But while state lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to make buying weapons harder for certain people showing signs of mental illness in places including New York, Connecticut and Florida, where the legislation won the blessing of the NRA, there is not yet serious discussion in Congress of doing so.

“If you’re having auditory hallucinations, that’s a sign of schizophrenia,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., referring to reports that Alexis suffered from delusions. Though someone like that should not have a gun, Coburn said, he expressed little faith that Congress could come together to write a law to fix that.

“It’s all politics,” he said. The senator helped lead negotiations on a background check proposal that fell apart earlier this year.

Alexis appears to be only the latest mass shooter whose mental health issues did not reach the level at which he would have been prohibited from buying a firearm under federal law. And it is unknowable whether even the most drastic improvements to the nation’s mental health system would have caught and treated the symptoms of someone like Alexis. The same can also be said for laws that restrict gun ownership for people with histories of mental illness.

The Veterans Affairs Department said Wednesday that during the two visits Alexis made to an emergency room in August, he seemed alert and denied being depressed or thinking of harming himself.

Similarly, Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 others, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson in 2011, and James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last year, were not barred from buying firearms under federal law, despite their own serious mental health issues.

In vivid contrast to what has happened at the federal level, some states have been much more aggressive about keeping guns out of the hands of those with mental illnesses. California has long had a statute that bars people from buying guns for five years if they have been placed by the authorities on a 72-hour or 14-day psychiatric hold — both of which fall short of an involuntary commitment — and also to be a danger to themselves or others. Upon release, people can petition in court to have their gun rights restored.

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, lawmakers in New York passed a raft of stricter gun laws this year including a provision that requires mental health professionals to report to local officials anyone who “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” If those officials agree with the assessment and the person owns a gun, law enforcement is ordered to confiscate it and revoke the person’s gun license.

Similarly, Connecticut lawmakers, as part of a larger package of gun restrictions passed this year, voted to require that hospitals report people who have been voluntarily admitted for psychiatric treatment to state authorities, who would then bar them from buying or possessing firearms for six months.

In Florida, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law this year that extended gun bans to people determined to be a danger to themselves or others, and who voluntarily admit themselves to a mental health facility. Strikingly, the measure won the support of the NRA.

Yet in Congress, that kind of compromise seems unlikely.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has introduced a bill with Republican co-sponsors, including Marco Rubio of Florida, that would set new federal mental health care standards like requiring 24-hour crisis care at community health centers. It is still waiting for a vote.

“People are losing their lives,” she said. “And we are seeing this pattern of it being tied to lack of treatment, lack of resources. We need action now.”