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 Oklahoma City bombing aftermath (courtesy

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?

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  1. seriously, is anybody actually worried about spree killers? I’m worried about that dude over there in the black hoodie, and whether or not he’s worried about what’s in my wallet.

    • The Democratic party’s calculation may be that women voters are worried about the spree killers and guns in general and will turn out in the midterm elections that they often skip otherwise. I guess we’ll find out in 2014.

        • demo women don’t have/need men. They are a.)”single-mothers’ (status of nobility) only briefly needed a sperm donor in order to establish welfare status or b.) have a wife (also a protected class of nobility as well as a pop fad).

    • The dude in the black hoodie eyeing your wallet is not likely to commit a crime sufficiently heinous to get on the National Radar. The spree killer that takes out a school or shopping mall on the other hand is. So, am I personally worried that a spree killer is going to hurt me or my family? No, as it is not particularly likely. However, I am worried that if some jackass shoots up a mall somewhere, my rights to own a firearm that I can use to protect my family from just such a spree killer will be seriously eroded

    • I’m not worried about either of those. I’m worried about the thug in a uniform who will murder anyone he’s told to without thinking or hesitation.

        • And if you were told “There’s a house full of terrorists, we need to go in and kill them all!” would you actually ask questions and find out if they were indeed people who needed killing or would you nearly pee yourself in excitement to put on your ski mask and run in guns blazing?

        • First of all, I don’t have a ski mask. Secondly, if there is a “house full of terrorists,” that situation would have some context other than someone saying “there’s a house full of terrorists over there.”

        • It was an example. You still didn’t deny that if your commanding officer told you to enter a house and shoot anyone on sight, you’d gladly obey without asking WHO you’re actually shooting at and why.

  2. Of course, when the State decides that dissent is a mental illness..

    (as was SOP in the Soviet Union, China, and other commie regimes..)

    • I agree! McVeigh was ready for a revolution but he was on a 1 man boat with no one else with him. He is little different than the revolutionaries against Britain. Granted, there was children in the building and he may or may not have known about it – however he performed the bombing on April 19th the same day the BATFE/FBI annihilated the women and children at WACO and also the same day as Ruby ridge when federal agents killed the guys pregnant wife and child. It was a federal building he blew up.

      The other guys I would refer to as spree killers. It doesn’t make much sense to shoot up a bunch of kids in school (no responsible targets) except for attention.

        • Yup. You probably meant Waco. And there’s no doubt a lot of things about OKC that we’ll probably never get straight answers about, like what happened to the wrongly jailed guy who looked like the infamous John Doe #2….

  3. I’m far more worried about the mental health professional who wants to diagnose people who want guns for protection or who don’t trust their government 110% as “paranoid” and thus a “danger” to be armed.

    I’m not afraid of spree killers. I’m afraid of the mental health people and the power and faith our government grants upon them to ruin people’s lives.

    • ^^ This.

      If they can deny a right based on some egg-heads diagnosis, who’s to say they won’t just diagnose every gun owner as paranoid? We know they already think this way as it is… giving them the ammo to do something about it would be a move towards war with the citizens of the republic.

    • yeah, me too. I don’t trust the shrinks either. I remember listening to a report on Democracy Now and the shrink there reporting that other shrinks are some of the most conformist people in the world due to all the ass they have to kiss getting their licenses and tend to overdiagnose non-conformists. This was a program on how psychiatrists were working for the U.S. gov at Guantanamo, iirc.

      The U.S. is a deeply unhappy, conformist country, corporate advertising to the contrary. If you are non-conformist politically or otherwise, you get called weird, are subject to bullying, etc. Decrease the alienation through greater worker rights and more social spending and watch the level of violence decrease. But that’s not the ruling classes’ agenda: control and increased exploitation is.

  4. “It’s a seriously counter intuitive 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.”

    Sorry, my reading comprehension skills are not what they used to be. Are you arguing for more or less mental health regulation? On the one hand, you suggest that if we increase the ability for mental health providers to identify and restrict people who are on the mental illness spectrum from buying a gun, then more mentally ill people will simply avoid treatment. On the other hand, you say that if we don’t get too concerned about adding more mental health records to NICS, then more people will continue to seek mental health treatment, which will increase the odds of mental health professionals identifying the truly dangerous ones.

    …Which, they then could not do anything about because we have not given them the ability to add those mental health observations to NICS.

    Seems like a Catch-22 to me.

    • My writing skills aren’t what they used to be either (I struggled with this one). I’m arguing for more mental health education but not more regulations. Adding rules to mental health reporting, as they did in the SAFE Act, will not achieve anything. It will have unintended consequences, none of which will be good.

  5. According to the American Psychiatric Association about half of us are mentally ill or will be at some point in life. Should somebody be denied their 2A rights because they got caught smoking a joint when they were in college? No. Should somebody be denied their 2A rights because they were diagnosed with ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder or some other DSM diagnosis when they were a child or a teenager (or at any other point)? Absolutely not. They have a fundamental right to liberty and self-preservation as anybody else. These diagnoses are subjective and have more to do with the symptoms the individual complains about to a mental health professional than anything else. There is an enormous difference between somebody with some complaints about some aspects of their day to day mental functioning and somebody who presents a clear and present danger to others.
    Any blanket attempt to prohibit anybody who has ever been diagnosed with any mental illness or been known to use an illegal drug in the past is an unacceptable attack on a huge number of decent people who present no clear threat to others.

    • According to the American Psychiatric Association about half of us are mentally ill or will be at some point in life.

      If the other person at your table appears to be ok . . .

    • And if no one needs a hair cut there is no need for barbers. Or perhaps better, if there were no witches no one would need an inquistor.

      Shrink self preservation is finding lots of kooks. What profession did “Major” Hassan “practice”?

  6. In a society that deems everything permissible, no one’s opinions are wrong, and everyone’s feelings to be sacred (except, of course, for those who support individual liberty, personal responsibility, and push against the left), no wonder mental health seems to be on the decline.

    You know that old saying/philosophy that children crave boundaries? I can’t help but think these crazies are what results when parents, teachers, and those in authority don’t set them.

  7. Well written article. Also, the potential abuse. A vindictive neighbor, (ex)spouse, girl/friend, coworker, random people. Any could report that a gun owner is unstable and that mark appears on your background check.

    You know it will take an act of congress or some other unfairly laborious and time consuming work to get that “mark” off your record. Of course, every reporting agency that links into this database will update their records to accurately reflect your correct status after you were wrongly accused. NOT! What’s that lag time or non compliance going to cost you? A job, jail time, refusal of services, etc.

  8. I’m a bit torn on addressing mental status. Most of us assume
    that revamping the mental health system would include
    better protocols and techniques for deciding if someone poses
    a threat. However, I think that given the chance the antis and
    the Obama Administration would label the want or need of a
    firearm as a mental sickness.

    Another avenue that nobody seems to have explored is the use
    of asylums. Many have been closed partly because home
    treatment can work very well. But where do we put the ones
    that need serious treatment in a secure environment? Many
    end up in jail, others end up in short term clinics. I’ve
    taken a dozen or so of disturbed people to a clinic only to have
    them either turned away for lack of bed space, or if they
    weren’t exhibiting immediately dangerous behavior, let go.
    Many, especially those in more rural areas, are assessed not
    by a psychiatrist or even a psychologist but a counselor.
    Nothing against counselors, but if you needed a heart
    operation you’d wouldn’t ask a nurse to do it.

    • Iowa the looney bins are largely empty since the ACLU loons sued to let the nuts out. Home/out treatment only works when the nuts actually take their medications (and the medication doesn’t make them “crazier”. Certainly a recipe for success. Robust, apolitical rapid trial based committal and fill the nut house backup. ACLU sit down and shut up.

  9. I frankly don’t want the government to have a list of everyone who has failed a drug test or has had “emotional” problems at school. The federal government having these massive lists of citizens for various reasons is unwise. What happened to the right to privacy? Does that only apply to women who want an abortion, or does it apply to anyone and their personal (including medical, school, etc.) records. The way to stop spree killers is at the point of attack not a priori. Citizens should take responsibilities for their own, their families, and their fellow citizens protection. What I find inexcusable is the the people to whom we trust our children aren’t prepared to protect them. If we put our children in mandatory public education we should be able to expect that those in charge will make sure they are safe. Gun free zones, hoplophobic teachers and administrators, and reliance on unconstitutional background checks are foolish. Give me trained citizens prepared to use deadly force to protect our children and society. I am looking at you teachers and administrator. You are responsible when we put our children in your hands. Step up or get off the field and leave our private affairs private.

    • You are so right that it’s not funny. Well said. If our country’s children are such a valuable asset (and they are), why do we hang signs around them that say “Hey look, this is a soft target!”? Has nobody who makes these rules actually learned from history? Spree killers are like bullies, or any predator out in the wild. They don’t go picking on the big kids, the strong, the alpha males. No, they cull out the weak, sickly, and young. I, f0r one, don’t want my potential future children to be the weak and the defenseless. I won’t be a victim and I won’t raise my (potential future) children to be victims.

  10. Unfortunately all this “keep the mentality ill in check” is going to lead to laws that will prevent people who have ever been diagnosed with any minor mental “condition” from buying a firearm. Hell maybe kids in school might be in for mandatory mental health checks along with their already mandatory vaccines.

    • This frightens me. I’m reminded of the Holocaust witness who stood by and watched others get carted away and didn’t help because “They’re not coming for me.” When they eventually came for him, there was nobody left to save him. We need to learn from that and stand with the “mentally ill”. They have rights, just as much as you or I. If we let their rights be taken because of a perceived mental illness, it won’t take all that long before we can join them in servitude. Even gun guys need to realize this and give up the scapegoating.

  11. I’d have to agree about it discouraging people from seeking help. While I’m pretty healthy mentally and I’m happy and rational and strong and not on (or needing) any medication, if something changed in the legal system I could totally see avoiding mental health counseling or even something as innocuous as marriage counseling out of the fear that some comment could be taken out of context or the ‘professional’ has their own opinions/agenda and ‘reports’ me to ‘the system.’….. then…. SWATing happens. No thanks. I can absolutely understand situations in which people would not seek help that might help them, precisely because of laws like those being proposed.

    • Thats right. And who is going to pay for it? You want to pay for it? Don’t want to pay for it?? Maybe the current regime will make your neighbor pay for it.

  12. Mental health status is another means to take guns away. Eventually everyone will have complete rights to all guns with exception of felons and those with mental health issues. More than 99% of the population will be felons and mental health patients. Already you can get “felony speeding” and your 2nd amendment rights are gone. You can get a felony for throwing a snowball at an occupied vehicle.

  13. As a mental health professional there is no easy answer there. I can look at the DSM all day and find plenty of criterion that I consider harmful (or those that might make an individual harmful to others) but just meeting those criteria doesn’t make person any more likely to engage in a spree killing than any other non-specific stressor. If we’re going to start assembling a list of Axis I conditions that make it likely someone with a gun might do harm, then we all have a lot to worry about; criterion not withstanding, a lot of what gets put into giving a diagnosis is based on the individual clinician, their background and experience. I’m one of a pretty small minority in this respect since I own and enjoy guns and support fully the Bill of Rights–I don’t think you could expect the same from my colleagues and that is worrying to me.

    • That is why it should never be just a doctor’s decision. It must be a legal proceeding as is required today. This makes it open to challenges and part of the public record.

  14. I really would like a show of hands… everyone that thinks that people that are so “mentally ill” that they would shoot up a school will volunteer to see a psychologist or not have the ability to cover up their illness, raise your hand.

    Only people seeking help would be denied their rights. Seeking help shouldn’t be reason to deny a right.

  15. Robert, your arguments on the mental health system and involuntary commitment mix two mental health solutions and claim they will have the same result of keeping people from seeking treatment but I think in reality they will have opposite results.

    In my opinion, the talk of expanding mental health prohibitions on gun ownership to depressed people and similar would never make it through the courts. Leaving it up to one doctor won’t cut it by itself so there would need to be some type of legal review like involuntary commitment today. The only thing that could likely survive a legal challenge is to add additional rules for involuntary commitment beyond immediate danger to self or others. Currently each state has their own laws regarding the requirements for involuntary commitment either inpatient or outpatient. The following study does show that involuntary commitment laws can affect homicide rates.–civil%20commitment%20law%20mh%20services%20us%20homicide%20rates–2011.pdf

    You seem to argue that making gun ownership prohibition, a doctor’s choice (for example anyone who has taken anti-depressants) or making it an easier legal/civil procedure will both keep people from seeking treatment. I can agree with that in the first case but I am unconvinced in the civil commitment case since a civil commitment will likely involve a petition by law enforcement, family or close friends and not be initiated by the doctor. If a person decided to get treatment then why is there a need to involuntarily commit them? I think in that case it is MORE likely for a person to seek treatment if gun ownership is a significant factor in their decision if we set up the following: If they go voluntarily then their rights are kept. If they are forced involuntarily then their rights are removed.

    In my experience people who are severely mentally ill who refuse treatment do so because in their mental state that can’t see their own problem and think there is nothing wrong with them. If they see a problem it is in the rest of the world’s view of them. Potential loss of gun ownership doesn’t play a factor. Now in the case of say veterans or people with PTSD seeking help, gun ownership would be a consideration but the solution to that is what I already argued for above. Make loss of gun ownership dependent on involuntary commitment or treatment not on voluntary treatment.

    You seem to suggest that ANY change to our mental health system or laws will make things worse. In the case of laws, I disagree. What we had before the 1960s was too extreme and people could be involuntarily committed for life with no chance of getting out. That was too extreme and was struck down in court case’s in the 1970s like O’Connor v Donaldson. I would argue that what we have today is probably too far the other way and we could move back the a little towards slightly easier rules for involuntary treatment the way some states already do. But we must be VERY careful in doing so. The current law is way too vague and open to interpretation. It says “adjudicated a mental defective”. While it is good that it uses the word adjudicated and thus requires a legal process, there is no clear definition of what constitutes “a mental defective”.

  16. Just a heads-up, your car-in-the-walmart link is broken. I know exactly what you’re talking about, because I (most unfortunately) live in California. But that link needs some fixing.

  17. Here we are again, having esoteric discussions about the merits of our opponents’ legislative moves. I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record, but in reality, our opponents don’t give a rat’s ass about the merits of what they are proposing. If they did, they wouldn’t be trying to make commonplace behavior (firearm loans, living unmarried, etc.) criminal, outlawing shotguns, or trying to let the empire in your house without a warrant to inspect your safe. As was more eloquently stated right here on TTAG, we are merely being subject to side channel attacks, since Heller and McDonald pretty much closed the door on full frontal attacks. They are trying to give us the death by a thousand cuts.

    As Sebastian put it (, we are facing a culture war due to our own successes. They don’t really care about getting rid of guns (they love policemen with guns under their control). What they truly desire is to eliminate the culture that gives rise to the enjoyment of firearms. They will use any and all means necessary to achieve that goal. Since they can’t outlaw all guns for civilians, their goal is to make as difficult as possible to exercise our 2nd amendment rights. Be ready. Be vigilant. No more compromise.

  18. It is my understanding that Cho should have failed the background checks, but the Commonwealth didn’t report his commitment for NICS. Feel free to fact check this. I can’t at the moment.

  19. Speaking from within the mental health industry, we could definitely do a better job identifying these spree killers and helping them receive treatment before they become mass murderers. We can also do a much better job working with law enforcement and the courts to find certain individuals “incompetent” (for lack of a better word) to possess firearms according to a well-defined, STRICT LEGAL AND MEDICAL STANDARD, and sharing those records with the federal background check system.

    There’s room for improvement in every facet of our lives. This one is certainly no exception. “Leaving well enough alone” is not the answer, as you suggest, Robert. Shame on you.

    • I think that the issue is not so much reforming the
      mental health area, but giving what could be perceived
      as an “in” for the anti-rights crowd. While we
      concentrate on the people who actually need help,
      the antis would without a doubt try to get all gun owners
      listed as mentally unstable. So until a majority in
      Congress and the president actually believe and follow
      the Bill of Rights, I’d rather say no reform than take
      the very real chance I’ll be officially labeled a psycho
      for owning a gun.

      • I see your point, Chuck. I agree to an extent.

        One way we can (and probably should) fire back against new gun control is to offer alternatives — shift the focus with new ideas. Introduce legislation that addresses these issues from outside the narrow focus on “guns”. If we believe guns truly aren’t the problem, we have to prove it by repeatedly demonstrating where the real problem lies. One way to accomplish that is through mental health reforms, but there are many alternatives.

        Thanks for your comment.

  20. Spree-killers don’t even flick the orange in my standard condition yellow kind of day. Hell, I’m usually more concerned about getting run over than I am getting shot at.

    Honestly, spree-killers are considerably less of a threat than the standard home-gown criminal kind- if you’re armed, anyway. The Lanzas of the world run like bitches and suck on their muzzles when challenged. A gang-banger, or third-strike felon on PCP? Much scarier, and will probably shoot back, or try and eat you.

  21. Wrong, Robert: the SINGLE most common feature is that they are on serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. In all but ONE mass shooting case I’ve looked at – where the info could be dug out – they have be on these psychiatric “wonder drugs” – it’s a wonder anybody will take them anymore.


  22. “[No person shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

    The opinion of some psychologist or psychiatrist is no process of law whatsoever.

  23. While there is some merit in your article, some key facts regarding Cho and Loughner were left out. First, VT knew of Cho mental illness and that he was dangerous. Next, the authorities were called to Loughner’s JC 9 times before he got the boot. Had either of these two ‘spree killers’ been placed on a “3 day Psychiatric hold”( aka 5150’d) for evaluation, placing them in the ‘system’ would have been possible and access to weapons may have been denied.

    Finally, you did not mention that for the last 30-40 years the ACLU has been going after states to make it more difficult for these troubled individuals to have an evaluation done by professionals. It is at that evaluation where their placement in the ‘system’ can be determined. The other route, the one the ‘state’ wants will only serve as one more path to the loss of gun ownership. The flawed, politically correct system needs to be fixed.

  24. Good job perpetuating the white male myth. Far from the truth, white males as well as hispanics are under represented for all types of murder, including mass murder. Asians, blacks and arabs are over represented. Write the truth, or don’t call it that. Stats can be found from left leaning mother jones.

    • It’s no different than kidnap victims- I’m sure just as many if not many times more pretty young black girls disappear, but Nancy Grace only gets a boner when it’s a pretty white girl.
      In fact, I think the white killer/victims are the only ones they go out of the way to identify the race of, and they tend to get all sheepish at the slightest mention of pigment.

  25. I have to disagree. Universal background checks will have no effect one way or the other on spree shootings. They will increase the number of gun suicides because people with depression will not undergo treatment to control it so not to lose their means of self defense.

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