MAXIMOS NIKITAS ’17
In the wake of last Monday’s shooting at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard, many have questioned how the unstable behavior of the gunman, Aaron Alexis, a 34 year old from Fort Worth Texas, could have slipped through the proverbial cracks of both psychiatric attention and even the justice system. Alexis, due to his past service in the Naval Reserves, had clearance to the Base in DC where he eventually proceeded to kill 12 people on the morning of September 16. While many have acknowledged his history of psychotic behavior, some have questioned whether or not his actions, even in retrospect, were a tip-off to his potential to carry through such a violent act.
According to authorities and acquaintances of the gunman, Mr. Alexis exhibited severe signs of schizophrenia, which became exacerbated towards the end of the summer, when he complained of hearing voices during his stay in a series of hotels. Additionally, in 2004, Alexis was arrested by Seattle police after he shot the tires of a man’s automobile during an apparent “blackout” from anger manifestation. Since then, he continued to show extreme outbursts of mental instability which, according to a New York Times article, were highlighted in a telephone call from his employer, Experts Inc., to a hotel at which Alexis was staying in Middletown, R.I. Yet, while many argue that these red-herrings, if addressed, would have prevented last week’s event, others contend that most of his actions, while deeply disturbing, were similar to those of other unstable individuals who are not nearly as dangerous; nevertheless, we can all agree that Mr. Alexis should not have been able to purchase firearms nor gain access to a Naval Base. Since last December’s Sandy Hook shooting, the only gun control issue upon which an overwhelming majority of Americans agree is the implementation of stricter mental health checks upon purchase of a firearm. This sentiment is even evident in those opposing gun control who have long articulated the opinion that people, rather than guns, are responsible for mass shootings such as this in America. In order to understand this reasoning we first must look into the viewpoints of gun advocacy groups.
A generally accepted truth is that the pushback on behalf of NRA advocates on the expansion of background checks in general is indicative of a general fear that doing so will lead to further government restriction of gun purchasing availability down the road. Yet many fail to recognize that a difference of opinion has grown between the NRA administration and that of its rank and file membership. Those on the left seem to conflate the viewpoints of Wayne Lapierre and others in the NRA leadership, who are much more interested in maintaing the influence of one of the most powerful Washington lobbies, with those of most gun-owning Americans.
The fact of the matter is that the idea of expanding mental health checks for the purchase of firearms is not only widely popular, but is the most accessible reform currently at our disposal. There truly are, in a sense, two NRAs. The first is its leadership which is not really as concerned with gun-safety or even protecting the 2nd amendment rights of individuals as they are with promoting the sale and manufacture of guns; in effect, their motto is ‘sell more guns,’ not ‘save more lives.’ The second, the members of the NRA, are much more receptive to promoting gun safety, as they realize that a safer America will prevent the government from further restricting the rights of gun owners on the whole.
We must understand that the business interests of the first should not obscure the individual freedom advocacy of the second. As we look into how we can prevent the possibility of future tragedies, the most obvious debate is over how we can prevent those who should not have access to a gun from being lost in the many loopholes in the current system of background checks.
The issue of mental health checks is far more accessible. One of the main issues here is that after age 18, individuals cannot be forced to seek psychiatric attention; rather, they must seek it on their own accord. People like Aaron Alexis are walking the streets because, while they are clearly imbalanced, we cannot prove that they are a danger to others; and, we cannot arrest these people based on speculation alone. What we can do, however, is prevent these individuals from having weapons at their disposal by changing the way general background checks are administered. While firearm checks are conducted by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS), the government is not the only entity that conducts security clearance checks; rather, many are handled by private contractors who are paid by the government, and are not nearly as comprehensive as they should be. Mr. Alexis should not have been able to gain clearance to the Navy Yard; but he was allowed to do so as, according to an article in the Washington Post, his background check only indicated a traffic violation. According to an ABC news article from earlier this week, the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, is among many Senators who will look into the work of the contractors. The government should be solely responsible for conducting these checks, for their work will be far more diligent, free of incentives, and essential to creating a sense of uniformity in the process.
Overall, while Washington is in gridlock over many other issues, we must realize that that our goal to create a safer America is within reach. We must find ways of eliminating these loopholes with common sense reform. While the expansion of gun control will always be met with opposition, we have ways through which we can make significant progress without much internal debate. Compromise here is key, and, in order to prevent the recurrence of these tragedies, we must reform our system in the fastest, most effective, and least controversial manner possible.