Now It's the Navy Yard: Here We Go Again

On September 16th Aaron Alexis, a civilian contractor working for the Navy, came onto the campus of the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. Unbeknownst to anyone he was carry a Remington 870 shotgun that he legally purchased at Sharp Shooters gun store and firing range. This shotgun is often called a “riot gun” because it has a short barrel and can carry 6 to 10 shells at a time; this makes it particularly useful for law enforcement in riots and other crowd control.

Unfortunately we’ve also learned it’s an effective weapon for a lone shooter to kill lots of people in a short time. By the time law enforcement shot and killed Mr. Alexis, 12 other people lay dead, and several more were wounded.

It feels a little local to me. I grew up in Woodbridge, Va. (about 20 miles south of Washington D.C.). My father was a government employee for his career and my sister is currently a civilian employee of the Army. The gun store that sold the shotgun is 10 miles from my childhood home and Kathleen Gaarde (who was one of the people killed) lived 3 miles from my high school.

I’m struck by how routine these events have become. The National Rifle Organization continues its undefeated run of blaming everyone but themselves and making clear that any politician who strays from their message will be targeted for reelection.

Mr. Alexis came to September 16th with a long history of mental illness, but also an honorable discharge from the Navy and the ability to get a job as a contractor. It’s frighteningly easy to look at his mental illness, proclaim that “those people shouldn’t have guns,” and pretend there is nothing else to do.

There is much else to do and somewhere we need to find the moral courage begin the job of keeping us safer. I confess I’m weary of politicians who dare not speak the truth out of a fear of losing their jobs. While there is no good reason for cowardice, keeping your job at the expense of human lives is particularly bankrupt. These riot shotguns are not meant for hunting game: they are designed to kill people and they are very good at that. It makes sense for the military or law enforcement to have access to these guns but there is no good rationale for civilian ownership.

I’m not one on those “anti-gun nuts.” I understand that people own guns for a variety of reasons: some are collectors, some are hunters, and some are protecting home and family. I don’t collect guns, I don’t hunt, and I don’t own anything I would kill to keep. But I do respect the rights of those who do collect, hunt, or protect.

OK, now what do we do with gun ownership among the mentally ill? It that really as easy as that? No, it’s not. The term “mentally ill” is simply vague, and current legislation is all over the map. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has a web page that lists (state by state) laws that prevent the mentally ill from owning guns. According to this, the federal government prevents giving a gun to anyone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” Most state laws follow the same requirement: you can’t own a gun if you’ve been institutionalized or been found by a court to be mentally ill.

Mr. Alexis had several run ins with the law, but in none of them was his mental capacity examined. To that extent, the gun shop in Lorton did nothing wrong in selling him the shotgun.

So how do we prevent people who are mentally ill from getting guns? I think we should keep looking at this issue, but recognize that there’s never going to be a bright line. Mr. Alexis showed signs that indicate he may have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. In his delusional mind he thought he was he was being controlled by low frequency electromagnetic waves.

The world of mental illness is much broader than that. Mental illness also covers people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, and many other illnesses. Our brothers and sisters who live with these diseases often don’t seek help because of prejudices and the fear of being labeled “crazy.” They have learned that seeking help can often cost them jobs, friends, and social standing. In the ongoing attempt to protect their profits, the NRA wants to throw this group under the bus, and it works against those of us who want to take the fear out of seeking treatment for mental illness.

We can all agree that people who think they are being controlled by low frequency waves shouldn’t own a gun. But what about someone who seeks treatment for depression who knows that his quest will put him on a list that makes him too crazy for gun ownership? What if he comes from a family of deer hunters? If he seeks treatment, his entire family will know about it because he won’t be able to hide the reason he can’t buy a gun. Will it make him afraid to seek treatment, and turn managed depression into uncontrolled depression?

Certainly we need to keep guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous. But this needs to be paired with reasonable gun control. If the next shooter has access only to guns that require frequent reloading, this would save lives. It wouldn’t in any sense impair people who want guns for collecting, hunting, or protecting. We don’t need guns whose only purpose is to kill large numbers of people in a short time.

Be assured I’ll reference this article the next time there is a mass shooting.