My brother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia immediately after returning home from duty in the Vietnam War in 1969. He willingly spent a year in the VA mental hospital in Topeka. But, after release, he continued to have delusions of persecution from authority figures including police and military. He took anti-psychotic medications intermittently until our mother’s death in 2008. After her death he took no medications and refused to see medical professionals whom he blamed for her death.
In March 2010 he told me that he had the authority to arrest a deputy sheriff who he thought was observing him. And if the deputy resisted, to shoot him. During the following week, he clandestinely purchased a shotgun, a semi-automatic assault rifle, a sniper scope, ammunition and two hand guns. He refused to talk with me about these purchases. I happened to see the shotgun in his apartment and went to the Bass Pro Shop where he purchased it.
Fortunately, due to our mother’s foresight, I had durable power-of-attorney for health care decisions for my brother.
I discussed his actions with the sergeant in the Lee’s Summit Police force in charge of outreach to the mentally ill. I signed an affidavit with the head nurse of Rediscover in Lee’s Summit. Upon her recommendation, his apprehension and commitment for observation was approved by a judge and forwarded to the police. He was transported to the Kansas City VA Hospital. After several days of observation, a doctor there told me that my brother hadn’t shown signs of being a danger to himself or others, and he was subsequently released. While he was in the hospital, I sold his firearms and deposited the funds in his credit union account.
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After I questioned managers at three gun stores as to how he had passed the background check given he’d spent a year in the VA mental facility in Topeka with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, I received a call from an Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent in the Kansas City field office. He told me that my brother had purchased this arsenal legally since he had not been committed by a judge against his will.
The database consisted of persons who had been legally committed involuntarily to a psychiatric facility. Furthermore, the database against which his name would have been compared was far from compete.
This episode soured my relationship with my brother until his death from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) at Kansas City Hospice on Dec. 22, 2012. The ALS was attributed to exposure to the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange, which was used by the United States in killing vegetation to expose the enemy in Vietnam in 1968.
I don’t believe that expanded background checks are the answer to the nation’s problems with mass shootings since a complete database does not exist. None of the shooters mentioned in the news would have appeared in such a database. I don’t believe that politicians can be held accountable for something that is undoable.
The common denominator of nearly all of these shooting tragedies is that someone (a relative, a fellow student, a work colleague, a neighbor, a friend, a teacher, a therapist, a gun salesman) saw danger and did nothing.
A metal detector may seem intrusive, but, as someone famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Michael Rowland is a retired mathematical statistician for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He lives in Lee’s Summit.