Batman Shooter James Holmes: This Massacre Should Never Have Happened, and Here is Why

Today in the very early AM, a heavily armed assailant entered a midnight showing of the Dark Knight Rises, tossed twoa smoke bombs into the crowd, and opened fire on random audience members, leaving several dead. 

The incident is one of a series of shootings that were so brazen and indiscriminate as to immediately invoke charges of mental health disorders. 

Starting with the Columbine school shootings and continuing through Virginia Tech, Arizona's Jared Loughner, and the Norway rampage of Anders Breivik, , there have been a growing number of shooters who commit random and deadly attacks as a result of their mental disorders. 

As yet, there are no details about the Batman shooter's s' mental health record, but the situation is a good opportunity to review some federal laws designed to prevent such tragedies, but which are not working because of practical obstacles. 

Federal law requires a background check for a significant number of gun purchases, and several charactersistics can disquality an individual from being sold a firearm, including being a felon, but also, for having a drug history, or  to have a history of mental illness. The statue is fairly explicit about what counts as a history of mental illness (voluntary commitment on the part of someone does not trigger the requirement). 

However, the background check system can only work when the database is well-supplied with information, and at present, states are not obligated to submit all of the mental health records that they possess. The lack of a mandate to disclose these records mean that they have only trickled in. The database currently has about 300,000 records when some simple demographic modeling by the Government Accounatbility Office (GAO) shows it should contain about 2.7 million records. 

Loughner and Cho (the VT shooter) would have both been prevented from purchasing their weapons if reporting practices had been better: 

"The alleged shooter in the Virginia Tech case was found by a special judge to be '“an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.'” The mayors’ group says that ruling should have prevented him from owning a gun, but because his mental health records weren’t sent to NCIS, he was able to purchase the gun that was used in the college killings.

"The group notes that Jared Loughner, the gunman who allegedly killed six and wounded 20 in Tucson, also should have been barred from purchasing the shotgun used in the killings after he was rejected from enlisting in the U.S. Army due to drug abuse. The mayors’ group says his record was not forwarded to the NCIS."

A more recent report by the GAO goes into this problem in exacting detail (government reports are so good on this stuff). Part of the problem is technical issues relating to the transfer of data, other problems involve lack of funding for the incentives to turn over records. The study showed that three months ago, thirty 30 states were not making any non-criminal mental health records available to the federal database. 

As I said before, it is not yet known whether Holmes (the BatmanDK shooter) had a mental health history that would have precluded him from  purchasing the weapons he used in his attack (or whether he purchased them at all), but Colorado is not one of the 10 states that has so far mandated the submission of their state records to the federal government. 

The right response then to these problems is to encourage your state legislators to move on this issue, support making federal assistance to those states who want to help speedier and better-funded. One might also think about expanding the sort of records that disqualify someone from owning a gun (though this is much more controversial). Last, better cooperation among the states could close further loopholes. A recent article (2007) in the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law makes this point well. 

"It should also be noted that there is currently no mechanism in place for notification that an individual who is prohibited from possessing a firearm by a state law, but not by federal law, has submitted an application to purchase a firearm in a state other than the one where the prohibition was issued (see the next section and Table 1). For example, California law provides for a five-year ban on firearms possession after placement on a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold for danger to self or others. This restriction does not trigger a federal ban. Were such an individual to attempt to purchase a firearm in another state, the required background check would not reflect the California prohibition."

In the next 24twenty-four hours, you will probably read a lot of articles talking about gun control in connection to this latest shooting, but the issue in most "spree" shootings is not the gun control architecture that governes ordinary citizens, but how well we enforce the narrow and fairly uncontroversial provisions we already have.

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Jordan Wolf

My training is partially in philosophy and I'm interested in democratic theory, but more practically, I like thinking about media sophistication, data in politics, and ways to curb partisanship.

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