Tag Archives: background checks

Mental Illness, Gun Purchases and Policy Action

The debate around children and guns, as documented in the blog posted on 28/01/16, shifted onto another perceived ‘dangerous’ social group of the mentally ill after the Virginia Tech school shooting. The perpetrator of that attack had been issued with a temporary detention order a year and a half prior to the shooting, where a Virginia magistrate found him to present “an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” Under Virginia law, however, because Cho was only “temporarily detained” rather than “committed,” he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms.

After this massacre, school and other types of mass shootings were depicted as a problem by the news media via aggregations of those killed by such incidents. The ‘elite consensus’ stance (Robinson 2002) of the media — evident in them supporting changes to mental health criteria — paved the way for political actors to reframe the Virginia Tech shooting into an issue of mental health and needing to improve weaknesses relating to gun purchases in this area. The focus on mental health had more of a chance of gaining policy traction than other gun initiatives suggested by the relatives and survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting: renewing the assault weapon ban and closing the gun show loophole in Virginia and nationally. One ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993) was directly related to closing the loophole defining prohibited persons that allowed the shooter to legally procure his firearms in the state of Virginia, despite his having been detained at a mental institute. The Governor of Virginia acted upon this recommendation using executive order to change Virginia state law so it encompassed voluntary detainment and treatment by those found to be a danger to themselves and/or others.

The other idea was to improve the federal ‘background checks’ database by encouraging individual states to submit mental health records. There was support from the NRA — typically an opponent to gun regulations — with one anonymous source claiming “we have no problem with mental health records being part of the NICS” and its executive director, Wayne LaPierre, arguing “We’re strongly in support of putting those records in the system.” One ‘counter-voice’ was the gun-rights group Gun Owners of America, who were concerned the bill was “a denial of civil liberty.” Likewise, mental health organisations were concerned about it stigmatising people with mental illness. The chief executive of Mental Health America said the bill was “going to do harm” because it failed to consider that mentally ill people could be treated. The Virginia Citizens Defense League head said that it might discourage people from seeking mental health treatment. As it transpired, the president signed into law, the ‘NICS Improvement Amendments Act’ (2008), strengthening the ability of the Attorney General to procure information from federal agencies and departments regarding prohibited persons, requiring annual reports are provided to Congress, and authorizing incentives for states, tribes and court systems to provide records for the NICS. Financial grants totalling almost forty million dollars were divided up and awarded to twenty-five states from 2009-2011. The ‘counter-movements’ (Klocke and Muschert 2010) were not powerful enough to resist this action, likely because the ‘elite consensus’ scenario was in place where both the media and the government were in agreement about the actions to be taken (Robinson 2002), and had additional support from typical opponents like the NRA.

 

[This blog post was put together using analyses of news media coverage and policy debates around the time of the Virginia Tech shooting; alongside literature about policy framing and the ‘CNN model.’ The next blog post will continue this theme, by documenting the lack of traction on a particular gun policy after the Virginia Tech shooting.]

 

  • Entman Robert M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
  • Klocke, Brian and Glenn W. Muschert. (2010) ‘A Hybrid Model of Moral Panics: Synthesizing the Theory and Practice of Moral Panic Research.’ Sociology Compass 4(5), 295-309.
  • Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.

 

“These people [school shooters]: they’re seriously mentally ill, they’re hearing voices”: Will redefining the criteria for prohibited gun owners reduce school shootings?

The quote cited in the title, said by one of the experts on gun-related legislation I interviewed, highlights the difference of school shootings from other types of gun violence in the U.S. A commonality in school shootings and other types of spree incidents does tend to be mental illness: the Virginia Tech University shooting (2007); the Northern Illinois University shooting (2008); the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona (2011); the Aurora Theatre shooter in Colorado (2012); the ‘Navy Yard’ shootings in Washington, D.C. (2013). In all of these examples, the perpetrators legally procured firearms: my gun violence prevention interviewees claimed that this was due to limitations in existing laws.

One interviewee pointed to the restrictiveness of the criteria for disqualification under the federal-level “Gun Control Act” (1968): being admitted to a psychiatric institution or being formally adjudicated by a court as a danger. For instance, the Virginia Tech shooter was prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal law; however, because he had only ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institute rather than ‘committed,’ he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms under state law at that time. Following the attack, the Governor of Virginia, using executive order, changed the law to prescribe that anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review — regardless of whether or not it was voluntary — should be prohibited. It was suggested by another interviewee that the specific criteria for firearm purchase exclusion at both the federal and state levels should mandate a broader scope of the threat posed by individuals, based on their history and whether they have expressed intentions to harm themselves or others.

Citizens themselves could also play a part by monitoring those closest to them and taking precautions to ensure untoward things do not happen, suggested one of my interviewees. This is particularly relevant when considering the Sandy Hook elementary school shooter had severe mental illness, yet was able to access his mother’s firearms to kill her and the victims at the school. The careful monitoring of those closest to them could also encourage those with mental illnesses to seek treatment before they carry out violent actions. Notably, the Virginia Tech school shooter (2007) did not pursue treatment on his own; rather, it was his remark to his suitemates “I might as well kill myself” that resulted in him getting mentally assessed.

In order to put mental health on the government agenda, interviewees recommended framing it as a ‘public health issue’ centred on school and other types of mass shootings. The issue of mental health and guns would then have to be based on a reconceptualisation of public safety based on the increasing number of mass shooting incidents, particularly those where the perpetrator legally procured a gun despite a history of mental illness. When it comes to school shooters, it is possible that putting barriers in the way of those who are mentally ill and have the potential to act violently could allow for interventionary efforts to help the individual before it culminates in a shooting incident.

[This blog used results from interviews with representatives from gun violence prevention groups and other experts in gun-related legislation. Further adding to this post were studies about the legal changes after the Virginia Tech shooting and general readings about past mass/school shooting incidents. The next blog post will examine how emergency management could play a part in reducing the severity of school shootings.]