Universal Background Checks Will Increase Spree Killing

 Oklahoma City bombing aftermath (courtesy wikipedia.org)

Spree killers are an incredibly rare. Other than the fact that they tend to be white males, they share a single unifying characteristic: they’re nuttier than a fruitcake. Both the NRA and the civilian disarmament industry have seized on this fact to further their agendas. The NRA: don’t blame the guns weed out the psychos. The gun grabbers: blame the guns weed out the psychos. And so we have a “debate” over universal background checks where both sides agree that the FBI’s background check system should be strengthened to prevent seriously mentally ill people from purchasing firearms, so that spree killers have a harder time tooling-up for their unconscionable acts. In fact, any move in that direction is bound to increase the number of spree killers . . .

Let’s be clear: there’s mentally ill, there’s seriously mentally ill and there’s deeply deranged. I think we can all agree that spree killers are on the deeply deranged end of the mental illness spectrum. Quite where you draw the line between these categories, how you ID and treat someone who’s on the arc from blue to homicidal (or goes straight there), how you monitor their progress or lack thereof, is a question best left to mental health professionals.

After all, America’s army of shrinks and psychologists are on the front lines; they’re our spree killer early warning system. In light of the horrific attacks by Cho, Holmes, Lanza and other mentally ill people who were not unknown to mental health professionals, common sense suggests we should do more to educate, inform and empower mental health pros to detect and deal with potential mass murderers.

Maybe we should make it easier for the mental health peeps to evoke involuntary commitment, to protect their patients, their patient’s friends and family, and society.

Or maybe not. You have to weigh-up the dangers of standardizing symptomology and streamlining the involuntary commitment process vs. the potential advantages to society. On one hand there’s the possibility the over-zealous practitioners will incarcerate the wrong people. On the other there’s the [unquantifiable] benefit of stopping spree killers.

Given that the Nazi’s eugenics program started within insane asylums, given that a more pervasive commitment might scare away potential patients, maybe we should leave well enough alone. For all we know, the current system is working as well as any system can.

One thing we don’t want to do is make the system worse. If we reduce the number of mentally ill people pinging the pro’s radar by making them afraid to reach out lest they be sent to the loony bin, no matter what the health care providers do or don’t do about the situation, we increase the possibility that a spree killer will slip through the net.

‘Cause, you know, the murderously crazy folks won’t be in the net. They’ll avoid care. They’ll be walking around, unsupervised, like the ticking time bombs we know them to be.

The current post-Newtown push to “do something” about “gun violence” has bypassed early discussions about the mental health care system generally and involuntary commitment in specific. It’s focused on “strengthening” the universal background check system. We must stop spree killers from arming themselves!

This is the rallying cry despite the fact that Aurora killer James Holmes passed the FBI’s background check system. As did Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho. And Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan. And Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner. None of these men had been “adjudicated to be mentally defective” or committed to a mental institution” (as form ATF 4473 asks).

On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Mark Kelley, gun control proponent and husband of Mr. Loughner’s primary target, how a strengthened background check would have prevented Loughner’s spree killing. Here’s Kelly’s reply.

In the case of the shooter in Tucson, the information on his mental illness, that caused him to get expelled from community college, that should have been in the system. His admitted drug use to the U.S. Army, who rejected him, that should have been in the system.

Not true. At the moment. (And therein lies a tale.) But more generally, does that mean that anyone who’s been expelled from college for psychological reasons should not be able to buy a gun? Or anyone who’s failed a drug test including, say, a Home Depot employee?

Should we void a citizen’s Constitutionally protected right to keep arms because of any mental health treatment; information that the state of New York requires for anyone who wants to keep a firearm? Some studies estimate that one in ten American take anti-depressants. More than that have done in the past.

Clearly, the desire to “strengthen background checks” or implement “universal background checks” is a side channel attack on gun rights—whether its proponents know it or not. But let’s stick to the central theme: pumping-up the volume on the number of mental health records entering into the FBI NICS background system will not stop spree killing. It will increase it.

First of all, it won’t work because it’s too unwieldy.

For some reason, there is no hard data on the number of “false positives” in the NICS system. [Click here for a Washington Post article on NICS denials.] We don’t and can’t know how many people buy firearms who shouldn’t (according to current restrictions). Or how many didn’t because they couldn’t and therefore didn’t commit a spree killing.

But the idea that adding tens of millions of mental health records into the NICS database—from thousands of local, state and federal reporting systems—will make the system more effective is a pipe dream (so to speak). It will clog the system and lead to even more “false positives.”

Second of all, it won’t work because spree killers won’t care.

Sandy Hook spree killer Adam Lanza obtained his firearms completely outside the legal purchasing process. He shot his mother four times in the head and took her guns. That’s how spree killers roll. They do what they have to do to do what they believe they have to do. Laws don’t stop them.

Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people (19 children under the age of six) with a fertilizer bomb. Does anyone seriously believe that a strengthened background check system will stop criminals, crazies and terrorists from getting ahold of a firearm, or building a bomb, or running a car into a Wal-Mart or whatever? Again, wishful thinking.

More than that, strengthening the background check system to include millions of mental health records will have a chilling effect on people with mental health issues. While it will reduce the number of people buying guns (the hidden agenda) the move will also prevent millions of Americans from seeking treatment for psychological issues; out of [justifiable] fear that treatment will lead to the loss of their gun rights.

Spree killers lurk in that haystack. If no one’s combing through it, as they are now . . .

It’s a seriously counterintuitive thought: “allowing” mentally ill people to buy guns reduces the number of spree killers by increasing the number of people subject to professional scrutiny. Increasing and policing the mental health standard for firearms purchase raises the odds of a spree killer by reducing professional scrutiny.

There’s no real way to prove that theory. But we can surmise that stopping gun sales to people with mental illness won’t work in the same way that banning guns entirely doesn’t effect the suicide rate (U.S. vs. Japan). In short, if spree killing is the problem, improving the mental health system is the answer.

But that’s not the real question, is it?