A Matter of Sanity

Reading newspaper accounts about Aaron Alexis, the Washington mass murderer, it's abundantly clear he was a highly disturbed man. His hearing voices and complaints about electrical vibrations directed at him from outside his body indicated a specific psychiatric disorder: namely, paranoid schizophrenia. He was reportedly seen by mental health professionals at various times and was described as having a volatile temper.

There are chilling reports about Mr. Alexis that bring to mind James Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., shooter and Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Conn., mass murderer. In these horrific instances, reports of the shooters' possible mental illnesses emerged after the incidents, which left many innocents dead or injured. However, the existence of these people's mental illnesses were known before the rampages took place.

After a mass killing by a disturbed person, the usual arguments have begun. Once again, there is pressure for legislation regarding background checks for mentally disturbed people. The New York Times reports:

"'Given the clear connection between recent mass shootings and mental illness, the Senate should not delay bipartisan legislation that would help address this issue,' Senators Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, and Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, wrote Wednesday in a joint statement to the Senate leadership."

As a psychiatrist, I would proffer a suggestion regarding some semblance of sanity in this hot-button issue. As a society, we routinely accept that the state has the undeniable right to test people's ability to drive through written and road tests. In addition, one must pass a visual acuity test. Physicians are required to report to the state if they determine a patient can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle. We would never issue drivers' licenses to blind people. Many states require that elderly people, already licensed to drive, be retested to maintain their drivers' licenses. These rules and regulations seem completely sane, and are in the interests of the common good.

I believe that equally sane and in the interest of the greater good would be federal legislation mandating anyone with certain psychiatric diagnoses (Paranoid Schizophrenia, certain types of dementia, and other psychotic disorders) be entered into a federal database, prohibiting them from gun ownership. Yes, we can anticipate controversy about "Big Brother" government, "discrimination" or impingement on "individual rights."

However, as a psychiatrist who has seen, up close, the workings of deranged minds, such legislation makes eminent common sense and is a matter of societal safety.