A 24-year-old man who shot and killed two people and wounded several others before kill ing himself at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, on Sunday should not have had guns.
David Katz apparently purchased two handguns legally in Maryland a few weeks before the shooting despite a lengthy and well-documented history of serious mental illness, highlighting glaring holes in the background check process even in states with strict gun laws.
People who struggle with mental illness should face stricter scrutiny when buying guns, but not because they might pose a danger to others. On the contrary, guns are statistically most dangerous to their owners.
Suicides account for the majority of all gun deaths, and about half of all suicides are carried out with guns.
With that data in mind, Mr. Katz’s history of psychiatric hospitalization and treatment with anti-psychotic medications might logically have raised red flags during a background check. But federal background checks only look at involuntary hospitalizations or people who have been adjudicated “mentally incompetent.”
Those are high bars. Both require court action. Other history of mental illness is generally considered confidential information only to be shared between patients and doctors.
Certainly, patient privacy is crucial, particularly with regard to such a sensitive topic as mental health. And people experiencing mental illness should never be discouraged from receiving potentially lifesaving treatment out of fear that it might show up on a future background check.
But doctors also have an obligation to help people who may be a danger to themselves or to others. Hospitalization for mental illness and other intensive interventions ought to preclude buying guns pending appropriate medical clearance.
Updated rules that require reporting significant warning signs — well above and beyond routine mental health treatment, for instance — to the federal background check database could help save lives without unduly impacting patient privacy.
But again, any change should focus on protecting patients from themselves.
Numerous studies have shown that people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population. And while suicide is a complex problem with many potential causes, untreated mental illness can be a major risk factor.
All of this, however, is useless without dramatically expanding the scope of background checks in general. Under federal law, checks are required only at licensed gun dealers, meaning that purchases at gun shows or through online interactions are effectively free of oversight.
And while each mass shooting is different — the Jacksonville shooting seems to have been related to losing a video game, for example — a common thread is that most have been committed by people who demonstrably shouldn’t have been able to get guns.
But without a stronger system, it’s only a matter of time before the next tragedy.