In the wake of the September 16th Navy Yard shooting which left 13 dead, including gunman Aaron Alexis, and eight wounded, many Americans are asking, "How was Alexis able to pass a background check and purchase a gun?" Their astonishment comes from Alexis' criminal and mental health history, which is unsettling to put it lightly.
• On June 3, 2004, Alexis was arrested in Seattle, Washington for "malicious mischief," a misdemeanor offense. He shot two rounds into the tire of a construction worker's car, which was parked outside his house, and a third round into the air. Alexis told police he committed the act in an anger-fueled "blackout" after the construction worker "disrespected" him. Though he was arrested, he was not charged because the paperwork for the case was lost.
• On August 10, 2008, Alexis was arrested for disorderly conduct in Atlanta, Georgia. He was kicked out of a nightclub for damaging furnishings and issuing a string of profanities. He spent two nights in jail.
• On September 5, 2010, Alexis was arrested in Fort Worth, Texas on suspicion of reckless discharge of a firearm, a misdemeanor offense. According to the police report, Alexis claimed he had been cleaning the gun while cooking and accidentally fired a round through the ceiling of his apartment. His neighbor upstairs told police the round missed her by approximately two feet. She also told them she was "terrified" of Alexis, who had previously confronted her about making too much noise. She believed the shooting was "intentional." The Tarrant County District Attorney's Office determined that under Texas law, the case did not constitute recklessness. No charges were filed.
• In 2011, Alexis was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy for "a pattern of misconduct," including insubordination, disorderly conduct, unauthorized absences from work, and at least one instance of drunkenness.
• On August 7, 2013, Alexis called Rhode Island police to the hotel he was staying at. He told police "while getting onto his flight from Virginia to Rhode Island he got into a verbal altercation with an unknown party in the airport." He stated that this individual sent three people to follow him. At his first hotel, he heard them talking to him through a wall. He packed up and moved to a second hotel where he heard the same voices talking to him through the walls, floor and ceiling. He moved to a third hotel, where he heard voices coming from the ceiling. The individuals were using "'some sort of microwave machine' to send vibrations through the ceiling, penetrating his body so he cannot fall asleep," he told police. Alexis was subsequently treated at two Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals for mental illness.
It's a sad fact that none of this prohibited Alexis from purchasing firearms under the current laws of the United States or Virginia, where he obtained the Remington 870 shotgun used in the massacre.
A Low Bar to Clear
Federal law prohibits felons and domestic violence misdemeanants from purchasing or possessing a firearm. None of Alexis' criminal behavior fell under this category.
Additionally, federal law prohibits those "adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to a mental institution" from purchasing or possessing firearms. A person is "adjudicated as a mental defective" if a court -- or other entity having legal authority to make adjudications -- has made a determination that an individual, as a result of mental illness: 1) Is a danger to himself or to others; 2) Lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs; 3) Is found insane by a court in a criminal case, or incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility pursuant to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A person is "committed to a mental institution" if that person has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution by a court or other lawful authority. This expressly excludes voluntary commitments.
Though Alexis was being treated by the government for mental illness, he was never adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution.
The national policy tools that we have just don't cut it. Despite the numerous, glaring red flags in Aaron Alexis' background, he was a "law-abiding gun owner" as far as our National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was concerned. And too few states have gone beyond the weak federal standard to prevent people like him from getting guns.
The Path Forward
Universal background checks are the lynchpin of any successful screening system. If you allow prohibited purchasers to obtain firearms through private sales with no background checks and zero accountability, they will exploit that loophole and avoid screening altogether. But when individuals like Aaron Alexis are not prohibited purchasers under existing federal law, it is obvious that universal background checks alone are not enough. We need to have a national discussion about expanding the disqualifying criteria so that the next Aaron Alexis can't legally purchase firearms.
Any expansion of these criteria should be supported by empirical research from the fields of mental health and public health. Furthermore, we need to strike a balance between a commitment to public safety and respect for the privacy of persons dealing with serious mental illness. Mental health professionals are rightly concerned that such policies could further stigmatize individuals with serious mental illness or discourage them from seeking mental health treatment.
With that in mind, I believe that we need to reframe the conversation so that instead of talking about a diagnosis of mental illness, we are discussing dangerousness. Policies related to mental illness play a part in this conversation, but so do policies that prohibit firearm purchases based on past acts of violence, or addiction to drugs and/or alcohol.
There are existing state models we can draw from that disqualify individuals who are at a higher risk of future violence. These states go beyond the weak federal standard to prohibit truly dangerous people from obtaining firearms. For example, in California, individuals who are involuntarily admitted to short-term emergency treatment because they are a danger to themselves and/or others are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms for a period of five years. Furthermore, law enforcement officers work with the mental health system to ensure that people in a crisis are adequately referred to treatment.
Outside of expanded mental health disqualifications, California law includes firearm prohibitions on individuals who have a history of violence. We know from research that the best predictor of future violence is past violence. Well-corroborated research demonstrates, for example, that individuals who are convicted of violent misdemeanors, or subject to temporary domestic violence restraining orders, are far more likely to engage in future violent behavior. Research conducted in California shows that denying an individual access to firearms because of past violence actually serves as a deterrent against future acts of violence. In other words, the denial itself may discourage violence.
The California legislature has also recently passed legislation to prohibit individuals who are convicted of multiple DUI or DWI offenses from owning a gun. Alcohol and substance abuse is strongly associated with an increased risk of violence, especially in association with mental illness.
Finally, in a broader policy context outside of background checks, public safety is enhanced when law enforcement is permitted to intervene to stop dangerous individuals from obtaining firearms. In Connecticut, family members and mental health practitioners can call law enforcement and report that they are worried about an individual being dangerous. Law enforcement can then petition a court for a warrant to search and seize that individual's firearms for a short period of time. This can make all the difference in preventing incidents of gun homicide and/or suicide.
Our Recurring Nightmare
How many mass shooters have we now seen legally purchase guns despite a mountain of evidence that they were a threat to themselves and/or others? Seung Hui-Cho, Steven Kazmierczak, Nidal Malik Hasan, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Andrew Engeldinger, Ian Stawicki, Aaron Alexis, etc. The list is endless.
Let's be clear. This problem is not insurmountable. We are the only free country on the planet that allows dangerous individuals like this to arm themselves like Rambo. The solution is before us. Our legislators on Capitol Hill have simply lacked the willpower and leadership necessary to seize it.
It's time to implement a modern, 21st century universal background check system that uses evidence-supported designations of dangerousness to keep guns out of the wrong hands. We are all tired of waking up to the same nightmare on a regular basis and witnessing the slaughter of our fellow Americans. We must demand our legislators stop drinking from the NRA trough and start fulfilling our Constitution's promise of "domestic tranquility."