With nearly every tragic mass shooting, the same question emerges — should people with a history of mental illness be allowed to keep their guns?
As investigators release more details suggesting that Aaron Alexis, the gunman responsible for killing 12 in a shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard earlier this month suffered from mental health issues, law enforcement officials are trying once again to address the difficult issue of gun seizures. California is the only state in which police can confiscate legally obtained guns from individuals who lose that eligibility because they have been convicted of a felony, are under a domestic violence restraining order or have been institutionalized for a mental health problem since their firearm purchase. But with every tragedy such as the school shooting in Newton, Con., the movie theater rampage in Aurora, Col. and the shooting that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and left six dead in Tucson, Ari. — each of which involved a gunman with unstable mental health — more states may be asking whether seizures can improve public safety.
The California Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS) was created in 2001 to cross reference court records, mental institution holds and criminal records with lists of gun buyers generated since 1996 by the background checks performed on every resident who purchases a new gun. The process identifies gun owners who may have purchased their gun legally but now can no longer own a firearm. Since 2007, these residents could get a knock on their door from the California Department of Justice task force agents, equipped like a mini SWAT team, ordering them to hand over their weapons.
While the NRA initially supported the seizure law as a way to protect the public, some critics of the program say citizens are not informed by police about the law, so they don’t know that a run-in could lead to a visit by officers and loss of their weapon. California’s officials are undeterred, however, and in March, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill authorizing an additional $24 million dollars to fund the databases and seizure teams. The new funds come from the surplus collected from gun buyers, who pay $22 for background checks.
That doesn’t seem fair to gun supporters, who support the program but not the way it’s funded. Executive Director of Gun Owners of California Sam Paredes told Bloomberg News, “The issue we have is funding this program only from resources from law-abiding gun purchasers. This program has a benefit to the entire public and therefore the entire public should be paying through general fund expenditures, and not just legal gun owners.”
Brown signed the bill into law after several tragedies involving individuals listed in the APPS. In 2008, Roy Perez shot his mother 16 times in their Baldwin Park home, then went next door and killed a woman and her 4-year-old daughter. Perez was on the APPS list for his long history of mental health citations, and task force members were scheduled to confiscate his gun the week after the shooting.
“It was a tragic situation. They knew who and where he was, but hadn’t gotten there in time,” says Leno. “If we had more resources and a shorter list, yes, that could have been prevented,” says state senator Mark Leno, who authored the bill. “We now know the names and addresses of about 20,000 people who fit the APP description, and that represents about 39,000 firearms including a couple thousand assault weapons,” he says. “The good news is we know who they are and where they are, unlike every other state. The challenge then of course is to confiscate these weapons.”
There are 21,224 people listed in APPS, and of those, approximately 30% are now illegally own firearms after a change in their mental health status. People with mental illnesses who can no longer own weapons include those who have spent 72 hours, voluntarily or involuntarily, in a mental health institution for any reason ranging from being involved in a dangerous incident, a psychiatric recommendation, or an attempted suicide.
In 2012, with 33 agents on the seizure task force, California seized 2,033 firearms, 117,000 rounds of ammunition, and 11,072 illegal high-capacity magazines. The majority were taken during two six-week sweeps around the state. With the additional funds, the task force now has 70 members.
But even with additional agents, it’s not clear that targeting the mentally ill with illegal guns will reduce crime and avoid tragedies like the Navy Yard shooting. Alexis, had he been subject to the law, may not have lost his firearm, since he was never put on a mental health hold or institutionalized for a mental health issue (although recent reports suggest he may have been treated for mental illness). And assuming that every individual with such a history can potentially become violent and a threat to society or himself may also have deeper, negative consequences for how psychiatric patients are treated. “We wouldn’t want to pejoratively label every American dealing with a mental illness as a potential mass murder,” says Leno. “A shockingly large percentage of Americans will deal with mental illness each year and it is unfortunately already stigmatized.”
Psychiatrists echo that concern, and are skeptical about whether California’s approach is the best way to protect the mentally ill as well as society. “Our society is struggling following several serious mass shootings with how to protect its citizens. At the same time, with the right to bear arms, we have struggled with people’s civil liberties,” says Dr. Victor Fornari, the director of the division of child/adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, New York. “[With] the goal of trying to protect citizens and greater good, California has thrown out a wide net. I don’t know if there is enough evidence that these people are posing a greater risk to the community and to other groups. The vast majority of people hospitalized for 72 hours are likely not dangerous, but our capacity to predict who might be dangerous is limited. “
California lawmakers maintain that the law will ultimately protect the public from avoidable tragedies. Once their weapons are seized, gun owners with mental health prohibitions are placed on a five-year probation, and may legally own another firearm after that time. About 15 to 20 people are added to the APP list in California every day, and Leno says the state attorney general Kamala Harris has talked to U.S. attorney general Eric Holder about whether California’s program could be a template for a national model. It may not be the only answer to preventing tragedies like the Sandy Hook school shootings or the Navy Yard rampage, but it could be part of a stronger net that catches individuals who are in vulnerable mental states and makes their own environments, as well as the society around them, safer.