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Mental illness and guns: Could the Jacksonville shooting have been prevented?

After a mass shooting, it’s customary for officials with the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups to point a finger toward mental health care in the United States and question whether the shooting might have been prevented by a good psychiatrist and a fistful of pills. While much is yet to be revealed about the recent Jacksonville shooting that left several dead, including David Katz, the 24-year-old Columbia man who shot up the video game tournament last Sunday before turning his handgun on himself, it’s clear the shooter’s parents worked long and hard to make sure he got the best possible mental health treatment. And that raises the second question that inevitably comes up on such occasions: Could the perpetrator have been prevented from buying or possessing a gun?

The answer appears to be yes, no and the point might be moot. That may sound dodgy, but the business of dealing with mental illness and potential violence is a complicated one. And so let’s make one point clear first: What Katz allegedly did in Florida is not the common behavior of people diagnosed with serious mental health problems. The world is not filled with walking time bombs. The mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of crime — or take their own lives — then they are to be involved in violence against others, let alone mass shootings. Yes, it happens, but it is the unicorn of outcomes in a world of ordinary horses.

Now, about keeping guns out of the hands of such people. Here’s the yes. It’s quite possible but also a long shot. While Maryland law prevents minors from buying guns anyway (and thus it’s ultimately up to parents or guardians to be the first line of defense), police and family members always have the option of going to court and seeking an emergency petition to evaluate whether someone is an imminent danger to himself or others. If so, the person could be subject to an involuntary commitment to a hospital for psychiatric care and be required to surrender their weapons, particularly if the hospitalization lasts 30 days or longer — and then it’s up to a judge to determine whether that person is safe to own a weapon.

And what about people who aren’t suitable for commitment? As it happens, Maryland this year put a law on the books, House Bill 1302, giving individuals the option of getting what’s known as an extreme risk protective order similar to the protective orders used in domestic violence cases. Someone in the family or with whom you are intimate appears to be an imminent threat? Beginning Oct. 1, you can go to a court or district court commissioner and get a temporary order that allows the police to confiscate that person’s guns. But to make that a permanent situation, there’s a hearing before a judge, and the gun owner has a right to legal representation.

Might either of those laws prevented the shooting in Jacksonville? Maybe, but that’s assuming a lot. Since 2013, New York state has had the SAFE Act (Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement) and required mental health professionals to report thousands of people they perceived as dangerous to a background database that’s used to regulate gun purchases. How many owned or attempted to own firearms? About 1 percent. There simply isn’t a common link between mental illness and violent crime. In fact, you’d be far better off exploring the more common connection between substance abuse and violent crime. Removing guns from a household of someone with multiple DUI convictions? That’s more likely to yield results.

Still, that’s not a very satisfying answer for those who were affected by the weekend’s horror in Jacksonville. If there’s even the slightest chance that the dangerously mentally ill could reliably be identified and then kept away from firearms, we’re all for it, but that chance is slight indeed. Americans need to keep in mind that such efforts are no panacea for gun violence in this country. It’s certainly not yet clear whether David Katz might have been kept from acquiring his weapons even after Oct. 1 when a protective order might have been an option and even had mental health care experts and a judge all fallen in line. It’s worth pursuing, but, all in all, taking guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is still more likely to reduce the suicide rate than save the lives of others.

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