Our View

We must work on gun laws, mental health

By From page A12 | September 20, 2013

The issue: Navy Yard killer gave early signs of trouble

Last December, after a deranged gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association was ready with a solution.

Said Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

ON MONDAY, a bad guy with a shotgun relieved two good guys, professional security guards, of their handguns and went on a killing rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.

Before police ended the shooting spree and the shooter’s life, Aaron Alexis, 34, had ended the lives of 12 people, some while they were eating breakfast in the courtyard cafeteria of the supposedly secure facility.

Like many mass killers, Alexis, in retrospect, gave telltale warning signs of trouble to come, but these appear to have been missed or rationalized away. His career as a Navy reservist was cut short when he was discharged after nearly four years for general misconduct — reportedly insubordination, absenteeism and disorderly conduct. The Navy Reserve did him a favor by granting him an honorable discharge in January 2011. A general discharge is a red flag to employers.

Alexis had friends, unlike many mass murderers, and they said he was never without a gun.

In 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas, Alexis fired a shot into his floor at the apartment of a neighbor with whom he’d been feuding. His feeble excuse to police was that his hands were greasy from cooking and the gun discharged accidentally.

Six years earlier in Seattle, Alexis shot out the tires of a parked car being used by some construction workers he felt had disrespected him.

HE CAME TO the Washington Navy Yard to work on a computer project for a Defense Department subcontractor. Officials told the Associated Press that, since last month, he’d sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs for serious mental issues, including paranoia, insomnia and hearing voices.

Clearly, there were signs of a slow-motion mental breakdown that culminated in the random murders of a dozen innocent people whose only offense was to show up for work. If only we had the mechanisms to detect and treat mental illness.

Beyond that is the question of why Alexis was entitled to have a firearm in the first place. The answer is that anybody with the cash can buy heavy-caliber semiautomatic weapons at gun shows or in private transactions. The NRA has made any possibility of a national registry of guns and gun owners politically toxic.

The Navy Yard massacre represents the seventh time in a decade that a gunman has killed 10 or more in a shooting. Each killing elicits demands from the public that the government take some kind of action. Each time, the outrage blows over — until the next time.

ONE DAY, PERHAPS soon, the public outrage will reach a critical mass, forcing lawmakers to overcome their fears and act not only on the question of criteria for gun ownership but to patch the gaping holes in our mental-health safety net.

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