Deadly intersection of guns, mental illness

The Palm Beach PostJune 11, 2014 

America has a mental health crisis. America has a gun crisis. They are combining with more frequency, and more deadly consequences.

And the most frustrating thing is we either don’t know what to do about it, or don’t have the courage to do anything about it.

That’s not good enough. Because while we procrastinate, pontificate and politic, mass shootings are becoming an all-too-familiar “Breaking News” fixture on news websites and cable television.

In one week, two inexplicable mass shootings on or near West Coast college campuses have state lawmakers and law-enforcement officials scrambling for answers.

On Thursday, news broke that a lone gunman armed with a shotgun killed a 19-year-old man and wounded two other young people after entering the foyer at Otto Miller Hall on the Seattle Pacific University campus and started shooting.

When he paused to reload, another student pepper-sprayed him and subdued him with the help of others and prevented more deaths. The gunman, identified by police as 26-year-old Aaron R. Ybarra, had additional rounds and a knife.

“There are a number of heroes in this,” Assistant Seattle Police Chief Paul McDonagh said. “The people around him (the gunman) stepped up.”

Ybarra, who is is not a student at the Washington state school, was described by a close friend as “super happy and friendly.” He added that Ybarra didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol and spent time writing. Ybarra could get emotionally low, but he had a good group of friends who never saw him depressed, the man said.

McDonagh said while police don’t yet have a motive or intended target for the shooting, detectives are “working as quickly as we can to figure it out.”

But the facts, so far, fit the pattern of other recent mass shootings by gunmen who may not have gotten the mental health care they needed.

Late last month, authorities allege, Elliot Rodger killed six University of California-Santa Barbara students and injured seven others before turning his gun on himself during a rampage in the coastal college town of Isla Vista, California.

Despite three interactions with Rodger in the year leading up to the incident, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s officials said they hadn’t known that he was in possession of any weapons. “The issue of weapons did not come up,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said. “We had no information that he had weapons or reason to believe he had weapons.”

Rodger had legally purchased three guns, proof of which would have been available in law-enforcement databases.

A month before, on April 30, four deputies, a UC-Santa Barbara police officer and a dispatcher in training went to the 22-year-old Rodger’s apartment to perform a welfare check after someone identifying himself as a friend of Rodger called a county mental health staff member. According to the Los Angeles Times, Rodger’s mother had contacted his therapist in April, concerned over bizarre and “disturbing” videos her son had posted on YouTube.

“Based upon the information available to them at the time,” the sheriff’s statement said, “sheriff’s deputies concluded that Rodger was not an immediate threat to himself or others, and that they did not have cause to place him on an involuntary mental health hold, or to enter and search his residence. Therefore, they did not view the videos or conduct a weapons check on Rodger.”

This all can’t be laid off on the sheriff, however. Why wasn’t a mental health staffer a member of the group that visited Rodger at his apartment that day, for example?

These two incidents regarding access to guns and mental health care are just the ones that made the national news. As we’ve said previously, shooting incidents involving local police and people in mental health crises are increasing throughout the country – some involving returning veterans with PTSD.

To be sure, this has gone way beyond enforcing the laws already on the books when it comes to guns. This is a full-blown epidemic that could manifest in any shopping center or movie theater, or on any school campus.

About 19,000 Americans kill themselves with guns every year. That should be incentive enough to shore up a woefully inadequate mental health system, and change our current gun laws.

First our leaders have to stop being afraid. Then take their collective heads out of sand so they can address the problem head-on.

Rick Christie writes for The Palm Beach (Florida) Post. E-mail him at rick_christie@ pbpost.com.

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