Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Isla Vista Shooting Reveals Failure of Mental Health System - Not Gun Laws

Gun Laws Won't Work Until We Fix The Mental Health System

Predictably, the Isla Vista mass shooting has triggered more calls for increased gun control laws - most of which would be struck down as unconstitutional.  Never mind that the reality is that California has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation - most people outside the gun community don't know this anyway.  Let's take a look at the real reason why these highly restrictive gun laws failed to stop this med man from buying a firearm LEGALLY.  (We will never know if he could have bought one illegally, on the black market.)

California has restrictions on those under mental health care that far exceed the federal restrictions.  Federally, in order to be denied a firearm you have to be committed to mental health care (in patient or out patient) by a court, against your will.  In California merely being sent in for evaluation by a police officer or a doctor triggers a five year prohibition - regardless of the outcome of the evaluation.

Because of my background in EMS, I am very familiar with this system.  Most of these 5150 holds (the legal reference for a forced mental health evaluation) are generated by cops in the field.  Most of these officers lack the training to evaluate mental health cases - so they error towards caution and place holds on many people who are not mentally ill in hope of not missing someone who is.  Even so, they still fail to send people in who really need help.

Such was the case here.  According to NBC LA, the shooter in this incident had three prior contacts with law enforcement in the weeks leading up to the shooting.   Most disconcerting, one of these contacts was generated by his parents, who expressed concerns over videos he had placed online.   Deputies did make contact with the shooter, but they failed to view the videos.  They also failed to enter his room - the killer himself wrote that if they had, his intentions would have been clear.  He was able to convince them that a hold was not required.  Had they sent him in for evaluation, this fact alone would have caused him to fail a background check - and resulted in his guns (which were registered) being seized.

Additionally, he was under the care of a prominent psychiatrist in 2012 - although it may not be fair to assert that he missed something.

Sadly, this is not the first time we have seen the mental health system fail to stop a mass shooter.  The shooter in Giffords tragedy had over 20 law enforcement contacts for bizarre behavior so bad that he was thrown out of his junior college - yet not one of these cops sent him in for evaluation.  The Navy Yard shooter also had contact with law enforcement shortly before the shooting for - you guessed it - bizarre behavior.  The Colorado theater shooter was under the care of psychiatrist at the time of the shooting.  In the Newtown shooting, the shooters mother had attempted - unsuccessfully - to have him committed.  The laws in Connecticut made this practically impossible. 

Background checks for firearms purchases are dependent upon good information.  Too many felony convictions and mental health commitments are not making it into the database.  Both gun rights and gun control groups have expressed concern about this - yet nothing is done about it.  Instead, the focus is almost exclusively upon passing more restrictive gun laws.

What measures will keep the mentally ill from buying guns legally?

1) An accurate database - federal law enforcement funding to the states should be tied to 100% of mental health commitments and felony convictions being reported to the FBI for inclusion in the NICS database.

2) Law enforcement officers must receive more training in recognizing mental illness.  Failing this, selected officers should receive more training and be called by the first responding officers  when there is any indication of mental illness.  Law enforcement is the front line of defense against the violent mentally ill - it's time we realized this fact.

3) Mental health practitioners need to be educated regarding gun laws and what triggers a prohibition upon firearms ownership.

The Supreme Court has twice held that there is a civil right to own firearms in "common use" - including handguns.  A ban is not possible.  What is possible - and specifically allowed in the ruling - is a ban upon the mentally ill owning firearms.  We already have laws to this effect - but they are useless when the mental health system fails. 

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