Why Mental-Health Background Checks Are Not the Solution to Gun Violence

Nearly half the country experiences some kind of mental illness during their lifetimes. Should they all be barred from owning guns?

(Mike Theiler/Reuters)

How was he allowed to buy a gun?

It's the question people are asking after learning that Aaron Alexis, the shooter in the Washington Navy Yard massacre Monday, had been involved in at least two prior shooting incidents and as recently as August sought the assistance of police in Rhode Island because he was hearing voices.

The answer is simple: He walked into the Sharpshooters gun range and store in Newington, Virginia, submitted his name to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, on which 174,623,643 background checks have been run since 1998, and came up clean. His gun incidents never led to criminal convictions. He was not a resident of Virginia and did not show up in any state databases. Whatever mental issues he had, they did not rise to the level of an involuntary commitment or a legal judgment that he was "mentally defective." When he sought medical care for insomnia in recent weeks, he denied being depressed or thinking of hurting himself or others.

As gun rights advocates have been quick to point out, nothing in Congress's failed spring effort to extend background checks would have stopped Alexis's ability to purchase the weapon he used to launch the slaughter of 12 innocent people starting their workday at a military installation.

This is the great problem at the heart of efforts to turn improved mental health reporting into our primary form of gun control. More than half of Americans experience one or more mental illnesses over the course of their lives, and around 26 percent of Americans over age 18 each year experience at least one, primarily anxiety disorders and mood disorders like depression. The overwhelming majority of them are no danger to anyone at all. But with so substantial a portion of the country going through bouts of one thing or another over the course of their lives, the idea that any federal database could capture enough information to encompass every one who might one day be a threat anywhere is akin to hoping for a government staff of precogs. And that's not even getting into the highly problematic question of whether the government should mark millions of people who will never hurt anyone for a carve-out from the Second Amendment, and the privacy and stigmatization issues involved in cataloging harmless people who suffer from common mental illnesses in order to label them as potential threats in a federal government database.

The idea of creating a mental health database instead of pursuing policies that involve direct regulation of guns is one put forward, not surprisingly, by the gun lobby, which knows that it's easier to blame gun violence on out-of-control crazies than on abundant access to deadly weapons by disturbed individuals with evil intent bent on mayhem and murder.

"How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame....? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?" National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre asked in December, following the Newtown shooting, which also would not have been prevented by background checks and adding more people to the mental illness databases. Gunman Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, used his mother's weapons instead of seeking to purchase new ones himself and there's no evidence he was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. Asperger's Syndrome, which Lanza was reportedly diagnosed with, is not a mental illness, and the Sensory Integration Disorder Lanza is also believed to have had is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual because of controversy about whether it is an independent condition or a symptom of autism (which is also not a mental illness).

That's not to say that the FBI's background check databases cannot be improved--because they do need to be improved. Right now the FBI's system barely collects information on the most severely mentally ill, and the information collected varies by state. A substantial minority of the states don't contribute any information at all and many of those that do have only begun to do so since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Federal law since 1968 has prohibited possession of a firearm or ammunition by anyone judged by a court to be "a mental defective" or "committed to any mental institution." But the federal government cannot compel states to report data, and some of them remain reluctant to collect or forward it on to the FBI. There's also been real debate about who to report. Anyone involuntarily committed? Or just ones who've been held for more than 72 hours? What about people who check themselves in for treatment? What about people who need treatment but do not require hospitalization, because that's not how treatment is delivered these days?

Improving the collection of mental illness reports for a state database and then reporting that data to the FBI became a big project in Virginia after Seung-Hui Cho was discovered to have had such severe mental issues that in 2005 there was a failed effort to involuntary commit him. His past might have prevented him from purchasing the weapons he used to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech--if he had been formally committed, if paperwork from his brushes with the mental health system had been forwarded on, and if the FBI database system had worked as federal officials would like it to.

Since the 2007 shooting, Virginia has strengthened its civil commitment laws and worked toward a comprehensive review of mental health services in the state. But six years after Virginia Tech, it was again a Virginia gun-dealer who sold the weapon that was used in a mass shooting.

The comprehensive state-based mental health-oriented approach toward ending gun violence and all the work Virginia did in improving its reporting to the feds may have helped mentally ill people in the state. But, sadly, none of it prevented another state gun sale leading to another massacre.