Latest mass shooting illustrates flaws in background checks


In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, this time at a video game event in a mall in Jacksonville, Florida, the debate becomes whether a 24-year-old man with a history of mental illness should have been able to purchase the guns in the first place.

Despite having twice been admitted to a psychiatric treatment facility and undergone treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the man was able to buy two handguns in Maryland. He used the weapons to take the lives of two innocent people and his own.

That someone with a lengthy and well-documented history of mental illness can legally purchase firearms without popping up on a watchlist would seem to defeat the purpose of mandatory background checks. After all, if the holes in the background process are glaring enough to allow something like this to happen, what good are the checks in the first place?

“From what I’ve seen, nothing in this young man’s background would have legally prohibited him from acquiring handguns,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “He, in essence, jumped through all the hoops and didn’t have any disqualifying conditions.”

According to an article on the Jacksonville shooting in the Baltimore Sun, federal background checks only look at “involuntary hospitalizations or people who have been adjudicated mentally incompetent.”

Therein lies the rub.

Studies continue to show that those suffering from mental illness show no more of a predilection toward violence than the rest of the public. The overwhelming majority of people struggling with mental health issues are law-abiding citizens — our friends and neighbors. That said, a recent study by Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and Michael Rocque, a professor of sociology at Bates College, shows a clear correlation between mass shootings and mental illness.

Their findings were published in February in response to the Parkland, Florida, school shootings that claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty and injured 17 others. The study concluded that one of the primary reasons experts are reluctant to connect mass shootings and mental illness is the fear it will lead to negative stigmatization of mental illness disorders. On the flip side of that coin, some insist — wrongly, in the opinion of the researchers — that mass shootings are “strictly a mental health problem rather than a gun problem.” Simply stated, it’s possible for mass shootings to be both a gun problem and a mental health problem.

So what’s the answer? Privacy issues come into play when dealing with those who receive treatment, voluntarily or otherwise, for mental health issues, and those seeking help should not be discouraged to do so out of fear of it becoming public knowledge. And Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms. But at a certain point, those rights are superseded by the need to protect the general public and those patients who pose a threat to themselves or others.

Appropriate medical clearance should be deemed necessary when buying firearms, especially for those who have been hospitalized for mental illness or received other intensive treatment for their disorders.

Updated rules that require reporting significant red flags to those conducting a federal background check could help save lives without unduly impacting patient privacy.