In the aftermath of the shooting at Northern Illinois University in February of this year, Americans struggled to understand how Steven Kazmierczak could have perpetrated such a terrible tragedy. National media outlets quoted close friends of Kazmierczak who described him as "probably the nicest, most caring person ever." His professors said he was "a nice kid" and "extremely respectful." NIU Police Chief Donald Grady said that law enforcement had "no indications at all this would be the type of person that would engage in such activity ... There were no red flags."
They were wrong.
A recent article in Esquire, published more than five months after the shooting, paints a far different picture. Unlike the sweet, award-winning graduate student that we heard about in February, Esquire writer David Vann tells the story of a troubled, volatile individual who was clearly a threat to himself and those around him.
The warning signs in Kazmierczak's behavior date back to his childhood. In high school, he idolized serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and was fascinated by Hitler and his crimes against humanity. Along with this obsession with violence, Kazmierczak developed severe mental health problems as a teenager. By the time he graduated from high school, Kazmierczak had attempted suicide three times, taken eight different medications for mental illness, and been institutionalized on five different occasions--including a stay at the Mary Hill Residence, a psychiatric hospital, where he spent nine months in in-patient care.
After leaving Mary Hill, Kazmierczak decided to join the Army. When it was found he had lied on an enlistment form, Kazmierczak was sent to the William Beaumont Army Medical Hospital's psych ward. The Army then determined he was a potential danger to himself and others, and Kazmierczak was given an "uncharacterized" discharge and kicked out of the service.
After 22 troubled years, Kazmierczak arrived at Northern Illinois University, where he tried his best to conceal his past from his new peers, friends and mentors. However, his disturbing behavior continued. At NIU, Kazmierczak engaged in long, detailed conversations about school shootings with a friend on campus. When Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 fellow students at Virginia Tech, Kazmierczak was excited. He studied everything about Cho--his writings, his planning, his timing, and how he obtained his guns.
Not long thereafter, Kazmierczak began stockpiling his own weapons. In December 2006, he applied for a Firearms Owner Identification (FOID) card in Illinois and was approved just one month later. The FOID application contained only one question that pertained to mental health. Kazmierczak was asked if he had been institutionalized in the past five years. He hadn't been--and no further explanation was needed.
Having obtained his card, Kazmierczak purchased five handguns and two shotguns over the next 13 months from federally licensed firearm dealers. Then, on February 14, 2008, he entered NIU's Cole Hall and killed six people (including himself) and wounded 18 others. Not long before the shooting, he told a former girlfriend, "If anything happens, don't tell anyone about me" and "You can write a book about me some day."
The truth is that Kazmierczak exhibited as many red flags as Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Six months earlier, the Virginia Tech Review Panel had published a report detailing Cho's disturbing and lifelong struggles with mental illness. The report also included a list of recommendations on how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again--including measures to improve screening of gun purchasers.
Regrettably, the U.S. Congress and state legislatures have taken little action in the wake of the panel's report to deny deranged shooters access to firepower.
Today, gun laws in Virginia and Illinois remain fundamentally unchanged. The current FOID card application in Illinois is nearly identical to the one that Kazmierczak sailed through in December 2006. And while Virginia clarified the process by which mental health records are transmitted to their State Police, loopholes remain open that allow prohibited purchasers and others to buy guns without undergoing a background check.
At the federal level, the picture is no more impressive. Last year, Congress passed the "NICS Improvement Act of 2007," which was signed into law by President Bush. The bill was intended to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by creating financial incentives for states to submit more disqualifying records to the federal database, including mental health records. Before it was passed, however, the National Rifle Association was permitted to make a number of detrimental additions. Contrary to its original purpose, the legislation will now require states who accept grant funding to create programs to restore firearm purchasing privileges to those previously restricted because of mental health disability. Moreover the bill has yet to be appropriated and no grant money has been disbursed. The bottom line, however, is that the U.S. Congress has not passed meaningful gun control legislation since 1997.
If the cases of Seung-Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak have taught us anything, it's that red flags and warning signs do appear consistently among shooters before they engage in acts of mass destruction. What is needed is a screening process that effectively identifies these warning signs before individuals purchase handguns, assault weapons, and other firearms. A handful of states have effective laws that go beyond a simple computerized background check and thoroughly screen gun purchasers. New Jersey is a good example--the state conducts an actual background investigation on an applicant before licensing them to purchase a handgun. Moreover, the recent decision by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller expressly stated that background checks and licensing and registration laws were constitutional.
The question is, how much more bloodshed will it take until we implement such best practices on a national level to prevent terrible tragedies like the ones at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech?