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Boehner's political courage on Fort Hood

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John Boehner

Showing grace-under-pressure, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) antagonized his Party’s pro-gun lobby in the wake of Ford Hood’s latest massacre, urging Congress to pass legislation preventing the mentally ill from getting guns. “There’s no question that those with mental health issues should be prevented from owning weapons or being able to get weapons,” said Boehner, stating what no other GOP politician is willing to say. Standing up to the National Rifle Association, Boehner finally told the gun lobby the obvious: That the mentally ill should not get their hands on guns. While advocacy groups, like the National Association for the Mentally Ill, insist that the mentally ill are no more dangerous than those without mental illness, mass killers have well-documented psychiatric problems. Whether there’s evidence or not, Boehner wants to error on the side of caution.

Yesterday’s massacre at Fort Hood by 34-year-old Spc. Ivan Lopez killing four including himself, highlighted the need for better diagnosis and prediction of violent behavior. Second Amendment rights groups, like the National Rifle Association, have been making excuses for years. When Korean-born Virginia Tech undergraduate Seung-hui Ho massacred 33 April 16, 2007, the talk was all about his bungled mental health treatment and inability to predict his violence episode. Fort Hood’s no stranger to mass murder after former Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan slaughtered 13 soldiers Nov. 5, 2009 at an Army deployment center. When Washington D.C. Navy Yard mass killer 34-year-old Aaron Alexis massacred 13 sailors Sept. 16, 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised to review safety measures at U.S. defense installations. Hagel admitted that precautions haven’t worked.

Army Secretary John McHugh admitted that Lopez “was prescribed drugs that included Ambien” and “was fully examined last month by a psychiatrist” raises disturbing questions about psychiatrists’ inability to predict violent behavior, not too mention the unknown effects on psychotropic drugs on violence and suicidal behavior. While McHugh didn’t say the date Lopez was evaluated, it might have been only days before the March 2 incident. Washington D.C.’s Center for Disease Control estimates that about $3.1 million or 10% of the U.S. population suffers from depression. Around 14.8 million or 5% suffer from major depression. Boehner still believes that anyone suffering or treated for mental health problems should be denied their Second Amendment rights or at least evaluated. CDC estimates that 7.7 million or 2.5% of citizens suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Gun advocates like the NRA believe that any gun control legislation violates the Second Amendment. Boehner’s decision to take a difficult position with the GOP could lose him his job. When the 64-year-old House Speaker put his foot down with the Tea Party calling for a full House vote Oct. 16, 2013 to prevent a government default, conservatives called for his head. Telling the Hill’s Russell Bermanreports that “no question” that guns should be kept from the mentally ill, Boehner exposes himself to ridicule in the GOP. “We need to continue to look at to find a way to keep guns out the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” said Boehner, reflecting on current federal gun control laws that prevent convicted felons from owning guns. Extending the same ban to the mentally ill presents a slippery slope, especially for those conditions considered somewhat mild.

Painting the mentally ill with a broad brush isn’t easy because there’s a whole spectrum of conditions that could color one’s judgment making the use of firearms more dangerous. Federal gun control legislation could include a box asking firearms applicants to check a box if they’ve ever been treated in outpatients or inpatients settings for any variety of mental disorders. If the applicant, under penalty of perjury, checks the box, it should require the applicant to be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. While not failsafe, at least some secondary evaluation before releasing the firearm could help to save lives. Medical Information Bureau checks wouldn’t have turned up anything in the case of Lopez. Had Lopez been subjected to a psychiatric evaluation before getting his gun, it’s possible he would have not gone ahead with the purchase or been denied after the assessment.

Showing leadership on a bitterly partisan issue, Boehner displayed courage in the wake of the recent Fort Hood massacre. Mental health checks on federal gun applications might have prevented 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner from murdering six bystanders Jan. 8, 2011 in a Tucson shopping mall, including shooting former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) through the head. More careful background checks could have prevented 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes from opening fire in a crowded movie house in Aurora, CO July 20, 2012 killing 12 and injuring scores more. Boehner got the message that firearms don’t belong in the hands of the mentally ill. If current federal law prohibits “mentally defective” citizens from buying guns, it’s time for federal gun applications to reflect the same language. Defending the Second Amendment at the cost of more innocent lives makes no sense.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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