It has happened again. A young man enters his former school — loaded down with military-grade weapons and tactical gear — opens fire and kills or injures dozens of innocent young men and women. Parents and children across the nation cower in fear and sadness, and a solemn president declares that something must be done to keep them safe, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
But when President Donald Trump spoke from the White House Thursday morning, he made not one single mention of what made the rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., so deadly. Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old accused of these horrific crimes, showed up with an AR-15, the same type of assault rifle used in the Las Vegas strip massacre; the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shootings; the Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando; the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.; and the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. And he carried what Broward County Sheriff Steve Israel characterized as “countless” ammunition magazines, along with a gas mask and smoke grenades.
What President Trump did talk about was mental health. We know that Mr. Cruz was reportedly disturbed — he had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and former schoolmates said they avoided and feared him. The family friends who cared for him after his mother died said they knew he was troubled. But there’s no evidence so far to suggest the kind of mental illness diagnosis or involuntary commitment that would prevent someone from legally purchasing a firearm.
Mr. Trump didn’t specify what he intended to do to ensure those with mental health problems can’t get guns, but he hinted on Twitter that what people had been able to observe about Mr. Cruz should have been enough. “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” President Trump wrote. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” Sheriff Israel sounded a similar theme in a news conference before the president’s address, suggesting that law enforcement officials should be given greater powers to take a person involuntarily to be evaluated by a mental health professional based on what they have said or written on social media. We have no doubt that Mr. Israel was well intentioned, but the constitutional problems with such a system would be enormous, as would be the potential for abuse.
And even if we could somehow perfect a system in which an alert citizenry identifies with perfect accuracy those rare few whose mental health problems indicate a true danger, and the law enforcement system could respond appropriately in every instance to them flag in the background check system, it would still do little to prevent dangerous people from getting guns like the one Mr. Cruz allegedly used. All indications so far are that Mr. Cruz purchased his weapon legally. But if he had been unable to pass a background check, he still could have purchased an AR-15 or any other sort of weapon through a private sale at a gun show. Federal law does not require a background check in such situations, and neither does Florida. Unless that changes, any talk of making us safe from mass shootings by focusing on mental health is a farce.
The Sandy Hook school shooting prompted Congress to do precisely nothing. The Las Vegas shooting hasn’t even prompted Congress to ban bump stocks, despite the green light from the NRA. Congress hasn’t even managed to prohibit people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. President Trump rescinded an Obama administration policy to cross-reference the background check lists with those of people receiving Social Security disability payments because of incapacitating mental health problems. Talk of reinstating the assault weapons ban that was in place for a decade is a non-starter. In a world where absolutist views of the Second Amendment have prevented the most common-sense measures to prevent mass shootings, we have little hope that Wednesday’s tragedy in Florida will make a difference. We can only hope that the push to turn even the suspicion of mental health issues into a matter for law enforcement won’t make matters worse.
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