Preventing the Next American Gun Tragedy: One Mother’s Story

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Photo by Linus Henning via Flickr

The attack in Las Vegas earlier this month was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, with 58 dead and hundreds of people injured. While the families of the victims and Americans around the country grieve the catastrophic loss of life, legislators and lobbyists are already strategizing how to use this shooting as a catalyst for pushing their gun policies.

Whether it is a pro-gun stance to endow schools and businesses with weapons of their own, an anti-gun position to reduce gun ownership, or a multidimensional intervention to further regulate gun distributors and invest in smart-gun research, Americans have already heard a variety of politicized reactions to the Las Vegas tragedy.

But what’s often missing in the debate is the perspective of those who worry that a loved one might catalyze the next American gun tragedy. Their anxieties make clear how helpless they feel in the absence of any framework to regulate who obtains deadly weapons in our society.

For example, a few years ago, I met a woman I’ll call “Jane Doe” during a visit to the psychiatric unit of INOVA Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia. I was visiting a human trafficking survivor whom I had recently rescued, and “Jane” was visiting her 27-year-old son, who was also a patient in the same psychiatric unit.

As we waited for the private security-controlled elevator to descend, I couldn’t help noticing that she was upset. Her son, she confided as we began to talk, was mad at her because she “took his gun away.”

She told me more as we walked together to the parking garage. During a conversation that lasted nearly an hour, I learned that her son suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoia.

“He thinks ‘they’ are after him and helicopters are following him,” she said.

“Jane” was trained as a clinical social worker and clearly loved her son, but she expressed a real fear that he was capable of hurting someone—potentially lots of people.

mehlman-orozco

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Just as disturbing to her was the fact that her son was able to buy a firearm at all while he was under psychiatric treatment.

With barely disguised incredulity, she recounted how he had bought his gun in a transaction that took less than 20 minutes. Like many Americans, she was under the misconception that the background check to purchase a firearm took three days and that persons who suffered from serious mental illness were precluded from buying one.

Unfortunately, screening for mental health history at federally licensed firearm dealers is cursory at best, and background checks can be circumvented in most states through private sales.

For example, in Virginia, where “Jane Doe” and her son reside, purchasing a firearm is as simple as presenting the licensed distributer with two proofs of identification, paying a small fee, and waiting a few minutes while the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) checks for any criminal history.

The gun distributor was not required to ask her son any questions about mental illness, so the fact that he had been voluntarily committed to mental institutions on countless occasions, across three different states, was inconsequential to his weapon procurement.

“Jane Doe’s” frustration was palpable.

In addition to finding the weapon, she recovered a concealed-weapons permit from her son’s apartment. She immediately called the local police and courts and warned the agents to deny his application if he were to reapply for a weapon.

“They didn’t know how to answer my questions,” she recalled. “It was like I was the first parent to call with a concern about a gun in the hands of a loved one with mental illness. They told me the records were sealed.”

I never saw “Jane Doe” again. As far as I know, her son remains in psychiatric treatment, and I am not aware of any gun-related incident involving him.

But how many tragedies-in-waiting are going unremarked around our country?

Why do we—and the thousands of “Jane Does”—have to keep waiting for measures that can eliminate such threats before they materialize?

Helplessness should not be our fallback emotion.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a PhD in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University. She is the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” which will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this month. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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