It is pretty clear from the background information dug up by newspapers on Aaron Alexis, 34, that he had become what psychiatrist and columnist Charles Krauthammer called a paranoid schizophrenic. Hearing voices, saying three people were sending microwaves through the walls keeping him from sleeping. Classic paranoid schizophrenic.
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And a paranoid schizophrenic with weapons is absolutely dangerous. Alexis was not officially identified as someone with mental problems and was thus able to legally buy a shotgun in Virginia. Twelve people were killed Monday in the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, including a security guard from whom he took a pistol.
He entered Building 197 at 8:15 a.m. and reassembled an altered Remington 870 Express pump-action shotgun in the fourth floor bathroom. By 9:20 a.m. when a D.C. police officer shot him in the head, Alexis had killed 12 and injured three. Strange messages were carved on the butt of his shotgun. The Remington Website says the 870 Express comes in either a 12 gauge or 20 gauge. We assume he bought the bigger 12 gauge.
Mother Jones Magazine has listed mass shooting back to 1982, a total of 70, with the least number killed being four. The Navy Yard shooting makes five shootings for this year. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker counted 28 in the past seven years and noted, “Half of the 12 deadliest mass shootings have occurred since 2007.”
The ones that really stand out are 28 killed in Newtown, Conn., last December; 12 in a the Aurora, Colo., theater in July 2012; 13 in Ft. Hood in 2009; 14 in Binghamton. N.Y. in 2009; 33 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007; 10 killed by a 16-year-old in Red Lake, Wisc., in 2005; 15 killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999; 24 killed in the Luby’s massacre in Killeen, Texas in 1991; and 24 killed in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro in 1984,
“Even so, for the sake of perspective, these represent a tiny fraction of total gun deaths,” Parker wrote. “They’re more horrific, so we take greater notice. But they represent less than 1 percent of all gun deaths between 1980 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides (19,392 of a total of 31,672 in the U.S. in 2010).”
What really ties these mass shooting together, Columbine excepted, is that they represent the acts of lone gunmen and they are all somewhere on the spectrum of insanity.
What really is needed is for states to enact tighter restrictions on people with mental problems from getting guns. We realize most states don’t allow those with proven mental problems from purchasing guns. That’s not good enough. When Aaron Alexis called the Newport, R.I. police Aug. 7 to report people were speaking though the hotel’s walls, floor and ceiling and were sending microwaves into his brain to keep him awake, the police sergeant made a report to the naval station police. Reports like that have good odds of falling through the cracks, which is what happened in this case, so far as we have learned.
With better state laws the police could have invited Alexis to the police station to make a report and had a departmental psychologist evaluate him. From this he could have been flagged as not allowed to purchase weapons until he can convince a psychiatrist in court that he is in full possession of his faculties and should be taken off the no-purchase list. If carefully administered, we would even support a national registry of those prohibited from gun purchases by reason of mental defect, so long as the state putting a person’s name on the registry has an appeal process and a way to remove a name from the registry if an appeal is positive.
Prohibiting the schizophrenic from purchasing weapons is only half the battle. As illustrated by the Newtown, Conn., case and the big shootout in Shingle Springs seven years ago that seriously wounded two deputies, schizophrenics can obtain weapons from family members. In both these cases the shooter first killed a family member and then took the weapons. Schizophrenia is largely genetic and manifests itself in young adulthood.
The trouble is parents of someone turning schizophrenic can’t look at their offspring dispassionately. They remain protective and don’t recognize the danger of keeping weapons in the house. Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary describes, in part, schizophrenia: “There is an altered concept of reality, and in some cases delusions and hallucinations.” A paranoid “develops extensive delusions of persecution.” It is incumbent upon the friends and neighbors who recognize the development of aberrant behavior to report it to law enforcement so they may make contact, perhaps bring a psychology consultant along. This is the only true solution. Observation and contact, and inquiring if there are weapons in the house. Determine the risk and provide advice, but maintain regular contact. Urge treatment, and urge removal of the weapons through sale or transfer to a relative out of the area.