Every time there’s a mass shooting we get the usual calls from the pro-gun and anti-gun groups about what we need to do to keep Americans from killing one another. The pro-gun folks say that everyone should be walking around with a gun, the anti-gun groups say that we need tighter controls. I don’t notice that either side can produce a shred of evidence to support their position, by the way, but that doesn’t stop them from always repeating their bromides every time a terrible shooting incident takes place.
I have a different view of the situation. First, shootings like the one that took place at Fort Hood have the potential to be much worse if the shooter was a better shot. At the end of his rampage Spc. Lopez was confronted by an armed MP whose presence may have made him decide to end his own life before more damage could be done. But the reason that only three people were killed and 16 were shot but evidently will live is because Lopez wasn’t really such an expert with the Smith & Wesson pistol that he brought onto the base. The fact is that a 45-caliber weapon is very lethal; the Army should know, it used a 45-caliber pistol as its basic service handgun for more than 60 years. “One shot, one kill” is the way that soldiers trained with that gun. The toll at Fort Hood could have been much worse whether everyone was walking around with a gun or not.
We also learn, however, that by the time Lopez purchased the gun on March 1st, he had already come under medical attention at the base, was being treated for depression and while he was stocking up on a sleeping pill known as Ambien, he was also stocking up on ammunition for his gun. But according to the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, he gave “no sign” during a recent psychiatric exam that he might become violent.
So everybody’s off the hook. President Obama and Governor Perry finally find an issue to agree about – they both want to get to “the bottom” of the problem and fix things so it won’t happen again. The Army medics did an exam and couldn’t find anything wrong. And let’s not forget the poor gun shop owner in Killeen who probably saw his shop invaded and turned upside down by a regiment of ATF agents who were hoping they could come up with something he did wrong.
I’m beginning to wonder whether we have any idea what goes on in the brain of someone who seemingly out of nowhere pulls out a gun and tries to shoot everyone in plain sight. Connecticut authorities spent a year trying to figure out Adam Lanza and came up with zilch. The Navy Yard shooter liked to play video games – gee, what a telltale symptom that must be. The guy who shot Gabby Giffords still hasn’t authored his best-selling book. Come to think of it, America’s best-known mass shooter, David Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam, is still sitting in an upstate correctional facility telling reporters that people shouldn’t be allowed to walk around with guns.
I suspect that as many as 50% of the people who commit gun violence each year had contact with a medical professional within the last few months before the event. In the case of suicides, which account for two-thirds of the victims of gun violence each year, the figure is probably closer to 90%. In the case of homicides we know that more than 80% of such killings grow out of ongoing arguments and disputes that, in many cases, landed one or both of the combatants in an ER or other medical facility getting treatment for an injury that will later provoke a response with a gun.
I think it’s time for physicians and other medical professionals to create and use better tools to identify, diagnose and treat patients at risk for the improper use of guns. There is no law that requires physicians to maintain confidentiality if a patient presents evidence that he is an immediate danger to himself or others, and what could be more immediate than someone exhibiting symptoms of depression or anger who also has access to a gun? Let’s put aside the endless arguments about the 2nd Amendment and agree that important scientific work in this area still needs to be done.