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Cuts to Mental Health Services Could Lead to More Spree Killings

Chilling Numbers Show Mental Illness Isn’t a Barrier to Gun Ownership

SOURCE: AP/RJ Sangosti

Public Defender Tamara Brady, right, shows James E. Holmes documents as he appears in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes is accused of killing 12 and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in a movie theater on July 20 in Aurora, Colorado.

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Prior to the shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater earlier this month, the accused gunman sent a journal—replete with detailed drawings of his plans for the deadly assault—to a University of Colorado psychiatrist who he was seeing. The fact that the Aurora shooting suspect was in touch with a medical professional is an indication that he fits the profile of a spree killer. Typically mentally disturbed individuals, spree killers most often plan their attacks and, as a rule, generally tell someone about their plans—in many cases, a mental health professional. Unfortunately, federal and state budget cuts mean that individuals with mental illness will find that help is increasingly harder to come by.

Between 2009 and 2011, states cumulatively cut more than $1.8 billion from their budgets for mental health services, according to a report released in 2011 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. At least two-thirds of states significantly slashed spending for services for children and adults living with mental illness.

To be sure, a person with mental illness is not de facto a violent person. Nor are they likely to cause human carnage by embarking on a shooting rampage. But spree killers share a number of traits, and one of them is being troubled. In the aftermath of one of the most infamous incidents of spree killing—the Columbine High School rampage in 1999—the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center examined 37 school attacks involving 41 student assailants from 1974 and 2000. They found a disturbing mix of mental illness and inaction:

  • 93 percent of assailants exhibited behavior that caused a school official, parent, or law enforcement officer to be concerned before the attack.
  • 81 percent of assailants let at least one person know that they were thinking of or planning an attack.
  • 78 percent of the assailants “exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts.”
  • 66 percent of attackers were known to be real threats by at least one person; in nearly every case, the person who knew this was a peer, friend, or sibling.
  • 34 percent of the assailants had a mental health evaluation prior to the attack.
  • 17 percent of the assailants “had been diagnosed with mental health or behavior disorder prior to the attack.”

Failing to appropriately treat and care for mentally ill Americans, especially young adults, puts us all at risk. Federal efforts to stem the state-level cuts and ensure sufficient Medicaid funds for behavioral health treatment must be considered a basic public-safety investment. Yet the National Alliance for Mental Illness finds that, “The magnitude of these cuts in a number of states is staggering. California cut $587.4 million during this period, New York $132 million and Illinois $113.7 million.” To make matters worse the current House Republican budget for 2013 proposes to further reduce federal funding for mental health treatment.

Continued funding cuts to mental health services will mean that an ever-increasing number of disturbed individuals will be forced to cope on their own and won’t receive the professional help they need and deserve. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults—approximately 57.7 million—experience a mental health disorder in a given year.

Spending cuts are likely to make it more difficult to close the gaps in the mental health information that is supposed to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the point-of-sale system for determining eligibility to purchase a firearm. Already the criminal justice system and mental health providers are failing to keep track of known dangerous persons. The best evidence of this shortcoming is:

  • 17 states have less than 10 mentally ill individuals listed as prohibited gun purchasers on the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
  • Six states and the District of Columbia have less than 100 mentally ill persons listed as prohibited gun purchasers on the system.

Since America’s worst spree shooting at Virginia Tech University five years ago, 14 more spree killings have cut short 135 lives and injured 167 innocent victims when mentally disturbed and heavily armed individuals have decided to wreak havoc. More alarmingly, the pace of spree killings is increasing and so too is the extent of the mayhem.

The rise of spree killings in America

Mental health care is important and so too are federal efforts to put more substantial barriers in place to stop gun purchases by mentally ill individuals. The Aurora shooting is yet another reminder of the urgency for implementing federal measures to increase public safety, measures that at a minimum must include:

  • Ensuring state compliance with requirements to post appropriate mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System
  • Establishing clear reporting guidelines for when and how mental health records are required to be posted in the system so that states can be held accountable for compliance
  • Requiring that all gun transactions, including private sales at gun shows and those online, include a full background check so dangerous individuals, including the mentally disturbed, cannot purchase guns legally in these nontraditional venues
  • Fully funding state technology efforts to comply with the federal background check system requirements
  • Requiring states to comply with National Instant Criminal Background Check System protocols or risk losing federal funding
  • Mandating that all federal agencies comply with a presidential executive order directing all agencies to submit records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and certifying that they have done so twice per year to the U.S. Attorney General
  • Outlawing high-capacity bullet magazines
  • Requiring campuses to establish a threat assessment process

Without question individuals determined to cause mayhem with guns may be hard to spot, let alone stop. But a mental health system weakened by shortsighted or misguided budget priorities is bound to make it even harder.

Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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