Editor’s Note: Donald J. Mihalek is executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the largest professional association exclusively representing police officers. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The man charged with murder in Parkland, Florida, was a loner, came from dysfunction and had an unusual interest in violence and weapons. Some in the media report this as if it were a surprise. But this should not be a shocker.
In the 25 mass school shootings since Columbine and the 160 active shooter incidents that occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2013, a familiar pattern has emerged. Mental health was almost always an issue.
And while some point to the gun as the problem, that minimizes the over-arching issues. There is a systemic breakdown of our systems – including the way background checks are conducted.
Individuals with mental health issues and who are prone to violence are, by law, “prohibited persons” who are not allowed to lawfully access a firearm. Unfortunately, there are minimal ways to stop them. The current background check system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), is fundamentally flawed and most Americans don’t understand why.
NICS is a data-driven input system – therefore, it can only check what information is inputted into it and in many cases, states and others fail to enter legally allowable information that would stop a “prohibited person” from passing the background check.
According to studies by the FBI and US Secret Service, the patterns that emerge are almost always the same. Everyone seems to consider the shooter a “loner.” People – teachers, administrators and often parents – are aware that the student had “concerning” behavior, they are mostly boys, they make disturbing comments prior to the act, and they have access to firearms.
Unfortunately, some parents shy away from talking openly about a child’s mental health and, in many cases, are in denial. Excuses abound but ultimately, the longer the denial exists, the brighter the “red warning light” flashes.
In the case of Parkland, reports indicate that the murderer was expelled from school, and the school’s administration was concerned about his violent tendencies. His fellow students saw him as a “loner” and different. It’s been documented that the police had been called to his home at least 39 times since 2010 for emergencies including “mentally ill person,” “child/elderly abuse,” and “domestic disturbance.” Yet he was still able to purchase a firearm.
The shooter’s social media pages were replete with images of him holding guns, espousing violence and saying that “shooting was therapy” for him.
As his mental health clearly spiraled downward and violent tendencies became pronounced, it seems that no one took any action to block him from getting hold of a firearm. We saw the same issue in the Virginia Tech shooting, Sandy Hook, the Navy Yard and others.
The mental health care system is in dire need of reform and adrift with a lack of funding. Privacy laws in many states create a wall to the sharing of information – even when someone is clearly violent, health care providers are discouraged from reporting them unless they are a danger to themselves or others.
These regulations prevent patients from being flagged. Instead, if a report is somehow made, it must go through law enforcement channels and be ruled on by a judge.
Why? Privacy arguments abound and some are valid concerns, but clearly an emerging murderer as in Parkland who raised the concerns of many should have overridden all privacy issues and been inputted into the background check system.
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The system should be as robust and include the types of identifying, warning, cross checking and criminal and mental history information as the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC). NCIC is the repository of all local and state information related to arrests, criminal history, criminal activity like stolen cars and permits law enforcement to input danger, warning or safety notifications.
If NICS doesn’t have that same type of robust information, it may never be able to do what Americans demand – block prohibited people from legally obtaining firearms. Until it is, we may continue to see people who should be prohibited from owning a weapon turn a tool of protection into a tool of terror.