Why The Fort Hood Shooter Was Able To Purchase A Gun Despite Serious Mental Health Issues

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa

Staff Sgt. John Robertson, right, waits in a parking lot outside of the Fort Hood military base for updates about the shooting that occurred inside on Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in Fort Hood, Texas

A gunman identified as 34-year-old Iraq War veteran Ivan Lopez opened fire at the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas on Wednesday, reportedly killing three service members before committing suicide. Officials reported that Lopez was being treated for several mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, and was being screened for possible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But despite his ongoing treatment, Lopez wasn’t barred from owning a gun. In fact, he recently purchased the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol that he used during Wednesday’s shooting spree.

Current federal law only bars people who have been involuntarily committed to inpatient mental health treatment or officially adjudicated mentally ill by a court from owning a firearm and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports veterans to the background check system if they’ve been deemed mentally incompetent. The Obama administration took several steps to enhance those rules at the beginning of this year, but gun safety advocates told ThinkProgress that more needs to be done, particularly for soldiers afflicted with PTSD.

At least 15 percent (and maybe even as many as 30 percent) of all veterans — and particularly young veterans like Lopez who are returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — have PTSD, according to the VA. And while the vast majority suffering from the conditions don’t display violent behavior, the conditions displays itself “different from one person to the next and involves many different types of symptoms.” Health researchers believe that certain disorders that may accompany PTSD do in fact increase someone’s risk of becoming violent towards themselves or others.

Fearing that federal standards allows too many people with mental illness to fall through the cracks, states like Indiana, New York, Connecticut, and California have already broadened the standards under which authorities may confiscate firearms from those who may pose a threat to themselves or others. Gun violence prevention advocates argue that laws permitting for the temporary confiscation of firearms while a person’s mental health status is evaluated may be most effective.

“It’s not just a one-time question of should this person have a gun, yes or no, but rather there should be some sort of intermediate process where we can protect against gun tragedies while doing a deeper assessment of what is going on with the person,” said Chelsea Parsons, Associate Director of Crime and Firearms Policy at American Progress. “That’s the Indiana model that creates a mechanism for temporarily taking away someone’s guns during a crisis. It’s like a temporary restraining order in a [domestic violence] case — during the immediate crisis period you restrain the potentially dangerous person from certain places/activities while the court/social services takes the time to figure out what is going on.”