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Mental Illness and Mass Shootings

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

More information has been released about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who stormed into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Armed with a gas mask, smoke grenades, a Smith and Wesson M&P15, and multiple magazines, Cruz went on a shooting spree, killing 17 people and wounding 17 more, before fleeing and being caught by police. (Prosecutors have stated they will seek the death penalty.)

Cruz owned at least 10 firearms, including the rifle used in the killings, a shotgun, an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle, and four other long guns. These (unlike handguns, which Cruz also possessed) appear to have been purchased legally. Cruz passed Florida’s mandatory background checks for the purchase of these weapons because he had no criminal offenses in his record.

A brief review of Cruz’ background reveals just how flawed and dangerous the current system of “background checks” truly is.

Cruz had a history of disciplinary events at school -- including two dozen such incidents at his middle school. Both his family and neighbors made multiple calls to the police to report violent or threatening behavior -- the police were called to Cruz’ home 39 times in seven years. He was disciplined, suspended and eventually expelled from high school for aggressive behavior and possession of weapons and ammunition. State and federal law enforcement were notified of disturbing threats and photos (with weapons) that Cruz posted on social media. None of that stopped Nikolas Cruz from purchasing guns.

Consider, as well, the histories of other mass shooters:

Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured 17 others at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007. Cho had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, severe anxiety disorder and selective mutism. In high school, he expressed a fascination with the Columbine High School shooters. Classmates and teachers at Virginia Tech had observed and expressed concerns about Cho’s bizarre and threatening behavior, as well as violent and obscene writings. Despite multiple attempts at intervention and a determination that Cho was “mentally ill and in need of hospitalization,” a judge in Virginia ordered him to undergo treatment on an outpatient basis only (which Cho never did). Because there was no involuntary commitment, Cho was able to pass background checks (including 30-day waiting periods) and purchase the handguns he used as murder weapons.

Jared Loughner also had a history of bizarre and threatening behavior, including paranoia, psychotic ramblings in class, drug use and run-ins with police. He was eventually kicked out of the community college he attended. On Jan. 8, 2011, Loughner showed up at a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, where congressional representative Gabby Giffords was meeting with constituents. Loughner began shooting, killing six and injuring 14, including Giffords (who was shot in the head, but survived). Loughner had passed a background check before he purchased the handgun he used.

James Holmes had a history of hallucinations, depression, suicide attempts and bizarre behavior, and was “obsessed with killing” according to one therapist. He was under the care of multiple psychiatrists, at least one of whom thought that he was potentially homicidal and dangerous. Holmes was nevertheless able to pass all necessary background checks and purchase multiple weapons legally. On July 20, 2012, he walked into a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, via an exit door he had propped open, and opened fire, killing 12 and wounding 70.

Adam Lanza had diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and extreme anxiety. He suffered from anorexia and exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia. Lanza, too, was obsessed with violence -- he prepared a massive spreadsheet with information about 500 mass murders, including the Columbine shootings. In the months before he massacred his mother while she slept, and then 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary school on Dec. 14, 2012, Lanza had retreated to his bedroom, living in nearly complete darkness with windows blackened by trash bags, refusing to interact even with his mother except by email. Lanza used weapons his mother had legally obtained.

What becomes clear when reading these accounts is that what passes for “mandatory background checks” is woefully inadequate. While the overwhelming majority of people suffering with mental illness are not putative mass murderers, a shocking number of mass shooters have records of serious mental illness. And yet, in the absence of criminal convictions or judicial declarations of insanity, these profoundly disturbed individuals still have access to weapons.

Amid the calls for policy changes following the Parkland shooting should be a demand for more comprehensive information to be included in background checks. Threatening behavior, like that displayed by these mass shooters, needs to be documented and accessible in federal and state databases, and grounds for denial of either gun licenses or gun purchases.

It is also clear that this must take place in conjunction with better treatment for mental illness -- including institutionalization when warranted. (Does anyone claim that Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza or Nikolas Cruz shouldn’t have been hospitalized?)

Neither privacy concerns nor a misguided sense of “compassion” should leave seriously ill people inadequately treated, nor leave others at risk of the murderous rampages we have seen far too often.

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