Public Safety & Justice

What Newtown Report Says About Gun Laws and the Mentally Ill

A report on the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., digs into the shooter's history of mental illness. Nothing suggests the state's new guards against arming the mentally ill would have stopped the incident.
by | November 26, 2013
 

Here’s one unsettling takeaway from the recent Connecticut state’s attorney’s report on Adam Lanza and the elementary school shooting that left 26 dead in Newtown, Conn.: Even new mental health regulations meant to prevent another Newtown shooting probably wouldn’t have stopped Lanza from accessing a deadly firearm.

The fact that medical professionals knew Lanza faced some mental health challenges -- and yet he was able to access his mother’s guns -- became a focus of state gun reform efforts across the country in 2013. Connecticut, for example, passed a law that targets people who voluntarily admit themselves to a psychiatric hospital during the preceding six months; for those who fit that definition, he or she would be ineligible for a gun permit, a handgun eligibility certificate, a long-gun eligibility certificate and an ammunition certificate.

Here is the rub though: Lanza would not have been affected by that new requirement because he never voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric hospital and medical professionals didn’t recognize he was dangerous. (Forget for a moment that Lanza wouldn't be affected for another reason -- that he borrowed his mother's weapons, rather than trying to purchase them on his own.) The report by Stephen J. Sedensky III, a Connecticut state’s attorney, outlines Lanza’s mental health history, including a 2005 diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, a developmental disorder that isn't associated with violent behavior. Lanza had difficulty looking people in the eye, disliked physical contact, refused to touch door knobs, changed his clothes obsessively and washed his hands on a repeated basis.

The report says that someone recommended that Lanza receive tutoring and be desensitized to social interaction by easing him into more regular classroom time and increasing his attendance at routine school events. “The shooter refused to take suggested medication and did not engage in suggested behavior therapies,” Sedensky noted. The report does not elaborate on what type of medication was recommended for Lanza, or who made the recommendation.

Medical records obtained by the Hartford Courant -- discussed in a June story that is in some ways more detailed than Sedensky's report -- indicate that Lanza’s mother brought him to the emergency room at Danbury Hospital in 2005 for problems with acute anxiety. Doctors told her Lanza was not a danger to himself or others. But Sedensky’s investigation revealed aspects of Lanza’s private life that point to his violent potential. For example, Lanza kept a spreadsheet of mass murders and had a game on his computer called “School Shooting” where the character enters a school and shoots students.

In January Governing reported on a Maryland legislative task force report that recommended mental health professionals in the state should contact police when an individual makes credible threats against themselves or others. That recommendation didn’t become a part of Maryland’s new gun restrictions passed in 2013, but even if it had, the recent state’s attorney investigation suggests someone like Lanza would have flown beneath the radar. “(M)ental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior,” Sedensky wrote. “He was undoubtedly afflicted with mental health problems; yet despite a fascination with mass shootings and firearms, he displayed no aggressive or threatening tendencies.”

In other ways, the new restrictions passed in Connecticut might have made a difference in preventing or minimizing the damage of the Newtown shooting. Now Connecticut provides training for school officials to identify children and teenagers with mental disorders and connect them with mental health professionals. Today Lanza’s mother would not be able to purchase the primary weapon Lanza used -- the Bushmaster AR-15, an assault-type weapon banned in this year’s Connecticut gun control package. Likewise, Lanza (via his mother) would not have access to magazines that could store more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

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