Another tragedy. I can't be surprised by them anymore, and with increasing frequency, I can identify what will be the history of the killer before we know much more than the suspect's name. This time was no different. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the gun control crowd is running out of excuses; they are now in about the situation as the man who says, "What elephant in the bathtub?"
The killing was in some respects like the others. The killer had little or no connection to his victims. He seems to have picked them at random. He was not taken alive. He was killed in a gun battle with police. And yes, like most of the others, there was a history of serious mental illness. By some accounts, he had gone to the Veterans Administration for mental health treatment, with paranoia, sleep disorders, and voices in his head.
Other accounts indicate he gave a somewhat less complete list of problems to the doctors at VA, which somewhat excuses their failure to try and hospitalize him before the tragedy. In the months before this horror, he became increasingly paranoid, making statements that suggest he was having hallucinations. Some of these statements ended up in police reports that were sent to the Navy six weeks before the murders, a reminder that you can't ignore severe mental illness. Well, you can, but the results are very ugly.
]The first reports said that the killer had an AR-15, a shotgun and a handgun. Some mainstream media sources were so impatient to go with a story that promoted the "ban assault weapons" agenda that they did not wait. The New York Daily News ran a front page headline the day after with a picture of an AR-15 reading,"SAME GUN DIFFERENT SLAY." But they also ran in the same issue an article to which they had prepended a correction, admitting that they knew that there was no AR-15 involved. But with such a great pun, why rewrite the headline to be accurate?
Only a little better was CNN's article. It reads very much like they had written an article about the AR-15 and how it is the preferred weapon of mass murderers, just waiting for another incident. Then, when it turned out that the shooter arrived at the Navy Yard with only a shotgun, they inserted a couple of paragraphs admitting this. But the headline did not much change: "Navy Yard shooting: AR-15, back in the news — briefly."
What did the shooter use? A Remington 870 shotgun. Suddenly, the gun control crowd is caught flat-footed. Are they going to push for a ban on Remington shotguns? I doubt that they could get 15 votes in the Congress for a bill like that.
Background checks? The killer passed a background check when he bought the shotgun from a licensed dealer in Virginia. He passed the background check because a lot of people fell down on the job.
Clear evidence of mental illness? No one sought an involuntary commitment, which would have prevented him from buying a gun. Previous criminal history? He was arrested for a pretty bizarre incident in 2004 in Seattle; he shot a car full of construction workers. His explanation to the police was so bizarre that he should probably have been hospitalized for mental illness observation at the time. Had the King County District Attorney's office not lost the file, he might well have been convicted of a felony, which would have disqualified him from buying a gun this year.
Did he buy a lot of ammunition, or buy it mail order? Both are big bugaboos of the gun control crowd at the moment. No, he bought two boxes, or 24 shells for the shotgun at the same gun store where he bought the Remington. I can just imagine the reaction if the gun control crowd introduced a bill to limit purchases to 10 shells at a time.
Finally, the desperation of the gun control crowd reached the level of reporting claims about the existing laws that were simply false. On Sept. 18, two days after the massacre, The New York Times reported, "The suspect in the killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday test-fired an AR-15 assault rifle at a Virginia gun store last week but was stopped from buying one because state law there limits the sale of such weapons to out-of-state buyers, according to two senior law enforcement officials."
Two days later, after a storm of criticism from people who, you know, actually know what Virginia's laws are, The Times ran a correction: "Out-of-state buyers must provide additional forms of identification to purchase a high-capacity AR-15 rifle; the laws do not prohibit the sales of all AR-15 rifles to all out-of-state residents." I would love to know who those "senior law enforcement officials" were, and if one of them is named Eric Holder. Pretty clearly, whoever gave them this information did not know what he was talking about.
It wasn't the type of gun. It wasn't a lack of background checks. It wasn't the type or amount of ammunition, or where he bought it. It wasn't because the killer was allowed to carry a gun, and then suddenly lost it. The problem was the one issue on which the gun control movement could make common ground with the gun rights movement, and has done so in the past — such as passage of HR 2640 after the Virginia Tech Massacre — the mental health problem.
We know while most severely mentally ill persons are not a threat to others, they are certainly more dangerous than the average person. Estimates vary, depending on the study, but they range from 5.6 times to 11 times as violent as persons without a mental illness problem. The Gun Control Act of 1968's prohibition on gun ownership by those who have been involuntarily committed, have pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity or have otherwise demonstrated serious mental illness is easily justified by the existing data.
So why does the gun control movement only with the greatest reluctance make common cause with the NRA? Part of the problem is that the gun control movement contains many different factions. Some are doctrinaire ACLU members who regard this legal treatment of the severely mentally ill as a form of unfair discrimination, like making blacks sit at the back of the bus.
Some years back, when the California legislature was considering a bill to prohibit those who had been involuntarily committed from owning a gun for five years, the ACLU objected because it treated the mentally ill differently than everyone else. They claimed that prohibiting everyone from owning a gun would not be a problem; it just wasn't fair to treat the mentally ill as special.
Some are progressives who recognize that deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was a progressive cause, and find it painful to admit the good intentions of 1960s progressives really did not work out the way that they had hoped. Many progressives blame deinstitutionalization first on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, then President Reagan. If they really thought that this was the case, you would think that they would be prepared to make war on this well-intentioned but catastrophic policy. I think a lot of them know the truth; it is just easier to blame it on Reagan instead of admitting that good intentions are not enough.
Some fiercely hate gun ownership because they see it as a dangerous thing to allow non-governmental employees to possess the means of resistance to arbitrary abuse. Some are frankly hostile to the idea of self-defense; they believe that all of us should turn the other cheek when attacked — except for police, who are "special" because they work for all of us.
To admit we are not all at the same risk of misusing a gun would be to admit that we need to be prepared to make distinctions based on experience: The severely mentally ill are more likely to do something dangerous than the rest of us. When I was young, to do so was called "being discriminating," and this was a positive thing. It meant that you could taste two different brands of chocolate, and express a preference for one over the other. Unfortunately, the ugly and irrational history of racial discrimination had destroyed that positive meaning of "discriminating."
The gun control movement — and its wholly owned subsidiary, the mainstream media — are not going to give up anytime soon. But watching them flailing about after the Navy Yard tragedy, trying to find some justification for gun control, gives me some hope that their movement is almost finished.
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. Visit his website at ClaytonCramer.com.