Armed And Dangerous

Law Bans Sale Of Firearms To People With A History Of Severe Mental Illness

(Editor's Note: After our broadcast of "Armed and Dangerous," we heard from David L. Shern, whose organization Mental Health America was included in our story. In our reporting before the broadcast, Dr. Shern told us our interview with former President Michael Faenza accurately reflected Mental Health America's current position and Dr. Shern's current views on the legislation before Congress on mental illness and gun control.

However, after the broadcast Dr. Shern had more to say. Mental Health America is opposed to the current legislation and contends that it will further marginalize the mentally ill, while will not decreasing the rate of gun homicides, as this violence is mainly not perpetrated by the mentally ill.

The following is an excerpt from the letter we received from Dr. Shern: "The stigma of mental illnesses and barriers to treatment can lead to tragic results for individuals and families. In fact, there are 30,000 suicides each year in the U.S. (nearly twice the number as homicides), with most related to untreated mental illnesses. ... Finally, the current legislative proposal is obscenely expensive - $375 million. Imagine spending almost as much for a database as the $430 million the Federal Government currently spends on state grants to fund community mental health services!")

As the smoke clears from the massacre at Virginia Tech, a couple of things have become apparent. First, the gunman, who had a history of mental illness, should have been prohibited under federal law from buying the guns he used in the attack, and second, as horrific as the tragedy was, it is not that uncommon.

It is estimated that every year in the U.S., 1,000 homicides are committed by people with mental illness. It's not supposed to be that way.

As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the first federal gun control law ever passed in the U.S., way back in 1968, banned the sale of firearms to people with a history of severe mental illness, but the law has never been properly enforced. Seung-Hui Cho is but the latest deranged gunman to shoot up a school or a church or an office for no logical reason.

"Every person who came in contact with him thought he was insane or dangerous," says Jim Kessler, a co-founder of Americans for Gun Safety.

Kessler says the erratic behavior of Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho was so pronounced, a judge ordered him to a psychiatric facility for evaluation.

"I have a copy of a temporary detention order for Mr. Cho," Kroft remarks. "It was written in 2005. Signed by a judge. And it says that Mr. Cho represents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mentally illness. Should that have been in the computer?"

"That absolutely should have been in the computer," Kessler argues. "I believe what we're seeing is the modern version of a suicide bomber in America, which is, you know, in the past you had someone who was depressed and maybe took their own life. But, now, you're seeing that they're taking lives with them. Now that it's becoming a copycat crime."

There's no shortage of examples. 60 Minutes first reported on this problem five years ago, not long after Michael McDermott showed up for work at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Mass., with a bag full of guns. He then went on a murder rampage. One of the first officers inside the building was Stephen Doherty, who was Wakefield's chief of police. He found seven victims, all dead, and McDermott sitting quietly in an office chair.

"And he had at his feet a 12-gauge shotgun. And cradled very similar near his legs, or knees, was an assault rifle," Doherty remembers.

What was his state of mind?

"He only made one statement: 'I don't speak German,'" Chief Doherty remembers. "That was his only statement."

McDermott had been saying and doing irrational things for 15 years, and had twice been hospitalized in psychiatric wards. Chief Doherty says that should have disqualified him from getting a firearms permit, but he got one anyway from his local police department in Rockland, Mass., 30 miles from Wakefield, where the shootings occurred.

"If someone came in with a mental health history like Michael McDermott's, someone who was repeatedly hospitalized for mental illness, would you have issued him a firearms permit?" Kroft asks Doherty.

"Under the present state of the law, I wouldn't know that because that information is private. I'm not allowed to know that," the police chief replies. "I can't get it."

Massachusetts is one of 28 states that doesn't supply any information on people with severe mental illness to the FBI database. That was supposed to change after President Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot and nearly killed by John Hinckley, a man with a history of mental illness.

Congress passed the Brady Bill, which created a system of instant background checks to screen all gun buyers and prevent sales to anyone barred by federal law from owning a firearm. The system relies on an FBI database that is supposed to have the names of fugitives, felons, and people that have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

But Jim Kessler says the system doesn't work when it comes to the mentally ill. "This isn't something that shows up every couple years at Virginia Tech," he says. "I mean, this happens."

Asked if this is a recurring problem, Kessler tells Kroft, "Look, we could be back here two years from now having this exact same conversation."