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Center for American Progress

Spree Killings Growing More Frequent and More Deadly

Spree Killings Growing More Frequent and More Deadly

Gaps in Background Check System Enable Mentally Ill Shooters to Legally Purchase Guns

Donna Cooper writes that the pace of mentally ill individuals who commit rampage killings with legally purchased guns is increasing.

A U.S. flag flies above a message board that reads
A U.S. flag flies above a message board that reads "We Will Remember," on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at a growing memorial to the victims of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. (AP/ Ted S. Warren)

With the death toll in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting rampage now at 12, with 58 wounded, many Americans are asking how future tragedies similar to this can be prevented. While the suspected gunman in this case appears to have purchased his guns legally, in America’s worst spree killing—the murder of 32 individuals and the wounding of 17 more on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007—the killer purchased a gun in spite of known mental health problems.

It’s too soon to know for sure if the accused killer in Aurora, who told police he was “The Joker” and appeared in court with his hair dyed a garish reddish orange looking dazed, has a history of metal illness. If so, he should have been prohibited from purchasing a gun under federal law. Still it must be emphatically pointed out that in America known dangerous individuals are able to purchase guns legally because of the failure of Congress and states to adopt clear and commonsense public safety measures that make it much more difficult and always illegal for people with a history of mental illness or drug abuse to purchase guns.

A report released in 2011 by the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition—called “Fatal Gaps: How Missing Records in the Federal Background Check System Put Guns in the Hands of Killers”—notes that states and federal agencies are basically ignoring the federal law requiring that records about dangerous people, including those with serious mental illnesses, be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Because of lax reporting, guns are winding up in the hands of people suffering from severe mental disorders, and, as a consequence, innocent people are dying. From 1984 through today 276 lives have been taken, and 335 Americans have been seriously injured by spree killers. Since Seung-Hui Cho went on a murderous rampage and opened fire on the campus of Virginia Tech five years ago, spree killings have cut short 135 lives and injured 167 innocent victims. The pace of spree killings is increasing and so to is the extent of the mayhem.

The rise of spree killings in America

The loss of just one innocent life to a mentally disturbed shooter should be reason enough to close the gaping holes in the system that permit gun purchases and access to high-capacity magazines that can cause such bloodshed. For this reason, we recommend several commonsense measures designed to curb gun violence without taking a single gun away from the great majority of Americans who have the right to own a weapon. These measures, which we outlined in our report, “Auditing the Cost of the Virginia Tech Massacre”, 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 National Instant Criminal Background Check System so that states can be held accountable for compliance
  • Requiring a full background check in all gun transactions, including private sales at gun shows and online purchases
  • Fully funding state technology efforts to comply with the federal background check system requirements
  • Requiring states to comply fully with the protocols of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or threatening to take away their federal funding
  • Mandating federal compliance with a proposed presidential executive order directing all agencies to submit records to this instant background check system
  • Prohibiting the purchase of assault weapons and outlawing high-capacity bullet magazines

In America we share the right to gun ownership, but we must also share the responsibility that the right to have a lethal weapon requires. Taking these commonsense steps to protect public safety will decrease the opportunity for a someone intent on mass carnage to stock up and execute their plan.

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

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Donna Cooper

Senior Fellow