The tragedy that occurred at Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, resulted in the deaths of 17 students and staff as well as the injury of 14 others. Once again, the eyes of America and the world were turned toward the problem of gun violence. Everyone has the same question on their mind: How do we keep events like this from happening in the future? Unfortunately, the Parkland shooting was not unique as events such as this have become all too common. Public outcry calls for changes in Florida law and federal laws to prevent more incidents of gun-related killings. While this may seem like a simple solution, the connection between violence and mental health is a complex issue for clinical psychologists and lawmakers alike.
Current Laws and Mental Health
The Parkland shooting has raised cries to adopt laws to prevent those who might be at risk of committing such acts from doing so. In fact, one is already in existence. The Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, otherwise known as the Baker Act, allows for the involuntary examination of those who are seriously mentally ill. Under this act, a person may be involuntarily institutionalized if there is sufficient evidence that the person has a mental illness as defined by the Baker Act. They must be considered to be in danger of harming themselves or others or have become self-negligent. This action can only be initiated by a law enforcement officer, mental health professional or judge.
If a person is determined to meet the criteria for an involuntary examination, they will be admitted to a mental health facility for an examination that can last up to 72 hours. Once the mental health condition of the person has been determined, they may:
- Be released back into the community
- Have a petition issued for involuntary inpatient placement
- Have a petition issued for involuntary outpatient placement
- Receive voluntary treatment
Notice that it takes a professional to have someone involuntarily examined. At present, the only recourse for a family member or friend who suspects the person may be a danger of committing a violent act is to call law enforcement. It can be difficult for a law enforcement officer to determine if the person truly has a mental illness and is a real danger.
A Crack in the System
One of the issues is that the bar for qualifying for involuntary examination is high. Just because a person has a mental illness, or someone believes that they have a mental problem, does not constitute a reason to have them examined. Furthermore, there must be strong evidence of the likelihood that the person will harm themselves or others in the near future. Even if the person has had episodes of harming themselves or others in the past, this does not mean that they meet the criteria at the present time for involuntary examination.
What are the criteria for being declared mentally incapable in Florida? There is very little to prevent the purchase of a firearm by anyone who is over 18 and who has not been convicted of a felony — or who has a strong history of documented mental illness. To be considered mentally incapacitated, the person must demonstrate the inability:
- To recognize objects and persons
- To be able to tell time
- To know where they are
In the medical profession, this is called orientation to time and place. Anyone who is alert and oriented may possess a gun unless they meet criteria established for firearms background checks. In other words, if a mentally ill person is alert and oriented, the police have no reason to take their guns from them.
Warning Signs Aren’t Enough
Under current Florida law, people with mental illness are able to buy guns unless they meet certain criteria. When a person tries to buy a gun, a database is checked that searches for court orders indicating a serious mental illness or defect. These include records of being involuntarily committed for mental illness. However, voluntary hospitalizations do not count. Going to see a therapist voluntarily will not necessarily affect your ability to purchase a firearm.
In order to be denied the ability to purchase a firearm, a person will meet one of the following criteria:
- Have a felony conviction
- Be convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence
- Be under an active protection order such as a restraining order
- Be under indictment of information for a crime punishable by a prison sentence exceeding one year
- Be convicted of a felony in the juvenile courts
- Have an active warrant for a felony or misdemeanor
- Be an unlawful substance user or addicted to controlled substances
- Be adjudicated mentally defective or have been involuntarily committed by a judge
- Be an illegal alien or renounce citizenship of the United States
- Have a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces
As one can see, it is not difficult to meet the criteria for owning a firearm in the state of Florida. So, what does this mean when it comes to people who committed mass gun-related violence such as the Parkland shooter?
The Holy Grail of Behavior Prediction
The topic of gun violence and mental illness was quickly taken over by statisticians, who were quick to point out that people with mental illness are no more likely than anyone else to commit a mass shooting incident. This is true, but it is difficult to deny that some form of mental illness is likely present in order for someone to walk into a school and begin killing classmates and teachers as with the Parkland shooting. The fallacy is that correlation does not equal causation. Just because school shooters have the characteristic indicators of mental illness does not mean that everyone with a mental illness is a potential school shooter.
The problem is that psychologists have yet to unlock the key to predicting who will be the next one to become a mass shooter. Behavior is a combination of risk and protective factors. Considerable research has been done about the risk factors for youth who may become violent. Some of these risk factors include:
- Early aggressive behavior
- Poor behavioral control
- High levels of emotional distress
- Antisocial beliefs and attitudes
- Exposure to violence in their family
- A dysfunctional family
- Parental abuse and crime
- Social rejection by their peers
- Community and neighborhood factors
This is only a short list of risk factors that are common among those who have committed violence. Protective factors that may help prevent a person from carrying through with the behavior, even though significant risk factors are present, include:
- Success in school
- Strong family connections
- Parental involvement in social activities with the child
- Good role models
- Strong social connections to peers
- Strong familial and community support
The Parkland shooter had many of the risk factors present, but on the day of the shooting, his behaviors were relatively normal and did not raise an alarm. One of the problems with people who have psychotic or antisocial personalities is that they can be quite charming and manipulative when they are not in the middle of an emotional outburst or fit of rage.
Those with antisocial personalities are good at altering their behavior and masking their symptoms to get what they want and to serve their own needs. This characteristic of that particular mental illness makes it difficult to spot and diagnose, and it’s even more difficult to predict who will follow through with an act of violence.
Preventing Another Tragedy
The connection between gun violence and mental illness is complex. Laws that target gun ownership by mentally ill people will likely have little effect on reducing gun violence because gun-related homicides among people with serious mental illness are only about 1% overall. What is needed is a law that targets those who are felt to be an extreme risk based on their actions and the observations of family and friends around them. Usually, family members are the first to see the warning signs of violence before they occur.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders or Gun Violence Restraining Orders may be the exact type of legislation that is needed. An ERPO or GVRO is a type of restraining order that is sought by family members or law enforcement officers who suspect a person is at extreme risk of harming themselves or others with a firearm. An ERPO would allow law enforcement to remove the firearms of a person who is in a mental health crisis and has the intent of using a gun for violence.
The restraining order would be in place until the court determines that the extreme risk has passed, at which point their firearms would be returned to them. The law must make certain that the restraining order is in place for a sufficient time for the crisis to subside. In order to regain ownership of their guns, the person must be able to demonstrate that the crisis is over and provide evidence that they have participated in an appropriate type of mental health counseling. These types of procedures are similar to those currently in place for domestic violence restraining orders in the United States.
There are several caveats to this type of restraining order. First, it has to ensure that the person is afforded due process throughout the entire proceedings. Secondly, there must be wording that makes it a felony to bear false witness against a person and abuse the law. In addition to this type of restraining order, a priority must be placed on increasing mental health awareness and how to recognize someone in crisis. This would give families and law enforcement officers a new tool that specifically addresses people who are in a mental crisis, rather than a blanket approach that targets all people with mental illness.
An ERPO law is one tool in the fight against school violence, but a multifaceted approach with a focus on mental health can get people the help that they need. Stronger legislation is needed to help identify those who are at risk by extending the resources available to family and friends who see a problem. They are the first line of defense, but they may not be mental health professionals or capable of preventing a tragedy on their own.
There must also be an effort to extend financial and other resources to overcome barriers affecting people who need mental health assistance. Teachers and school officials must be allowed to play a more active role in identifying those students at risk and getting them the help that they need. There could be systems in place to help schools, families and peers cooperate more effectively when someone is in crisis. Students who have risk factors such as explosive anger and depression should be monitored and provided resources to help them learn to cope with their issues.
Adopting laws such as the ERPOs and GVROs would give families and law enforcement more effective tools to address those who are at risk for violence. These will not be as effective unless there are increased efforts in the area of mental health education. Family members, teachers and other authorities should have more leverage to be able to intervene and get students who are at risk the help that they need. Lawmakers have the power to untie parents’ and teachers’ hands so that they can do their job when it comes to helping the youth of America and preventing tragedies such as the Parkland shooting.