Monday, March 7, 2011

PTSD and the Mason Case

Let's say there's a man who had been professionally trained by the military to kill with firearms.  He has suffered for 3-4 years with such a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he could hardly sleep, suffered from flashbacks, couldn't hold a job, and had severe stomach problems, throwing up daily.  Years of therapy with the VA had failed to help him.  He has become so emotionally unstable that fireworks spook him, driving terrifies him, and other loud, unexpected noises like a shattered drinking glass cause him to explode. 

Do you think this man should possess a gun? 

Do you think allowing him to possess a gun might be unacceptably dangerous to him and those around him?  

Consider the case of Michael Thomas Mason, age 27.  On December 15, 2010, he was at the mall here in Eugene when he had a severe PTSD psychotic break.  He randomly fired into a busy parking lot with his 9mm handgun, striking several cars.  Luckily, no one was injured.  He then drove off, driving recklessly in his SUV.  Police soon tracked him down and gave chase, ending up in the nearby town of Santa Clara.  Two police officers convinced Mason to drop his gun out his window, but Mason didn't respond to other commands, and was moving erratically in his vehicle.  When the two officers thought (mistakenly) that Mason was reaching for another weapon, they fired three times.  Two shots hit Mason.  He survived, but one of the bullets hit his spinal cord, paralyzing him.  Mason is now a quadriplegic and is wheelchair-bound. 

(On a related side note, this wasn't a first for either officer:  Officer Marcus Pope had shot and injured a murder suspect in November 2008 who had attacked him with knives, and the other officer, Bill Solesbee, had been one of nine SWAT members who shot and killed another attacker in Creswell in January 2003.  All of these shootings were considered justified.)

Last weekend there was a two-and-a-half page feature on Mason in the local newspaper, complete with color photos.  It was a very good article about the man -- a biography -- entitled "For the Love of a Soldier."   The article went into detail about how he had been an Eagle Scout and sheriff's cadet, how he has always had a very close relationship with his family, how he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps as a Eugene city policeman, and how, after 9/11, he enlisted with the army and served in Afghanistan.  He is an honest man with a history of citizenship, devotion to country and family, and is an honest-to-god war hero.

This is a man who, from an early age, had been taught firearms safety and usage, who has used good judgment, and was professionally trained by the military.

But even honest men with lots and lots of training can't see the danger that having firearms around can bring, particularly with mental illness.

You see, Michael Thomas Mason had suffered in Afghanistan.  He was in many live-fire situations.  And in one particularly horrible event, he watched as his army buddies were blown up by an IED.  Mason was tasked with collecting what was left of them.

After his tour of duty ended, Mason returned to Eugene, hoping to follow in his father's footsteps and become a police officer, but he was turned down.  He suffered from PTSD.  He sought therapy from the VA.  Loud, unexpected noises sent him spirally out of control.  He couldn't work.  He was physically sick.  He was depressed.  In fact, he IS the theoretical person I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

And then the shooting events of last December happened.

That two-and-a-half page article did a lot to show how horrible the effects of PTSD are to our veterans, and illustrated quite nicely how Mason suffered and how he had been such a great young man.  Only a few paragraphs on the third page actually mentioned the shooting. 

But nowhere, in that article or any of the others, was the most obvious question asked:  
 If Mason was so emotionally unstable, why was he allowed to have a gun?

His VA therapist knew he was fragile and potentially violent.  His wife knew it.  His friends and family knew it.  HE knew it.  But at no point, apparently, did anyone stop to ask Mason if he would be willing to give up his firearm.  And, apparently, he was not forbidden to purchase a firearm.  He is a poster-child for strengthening  the mental health reporting of the NICS background check system.

PTSD is nothing new to our veterans, by any stretch.  Of course people who witness and take part in wartime killing come back emotionally scarred.  Wouldn't you? 

The problem is that the military isn't dealing with PTSD  effectively enough. 

PTSD has been linked to many homicides.  It is hard to find those links, since homicides are generally dealt with by local jurisdictions, not the military, unless it is on military property, and the link to PTSD isn't always reported on.  No federal department, including the military, keeps track of it, that I can find.  If anything, they seem to downplay PTSD links to homicides, in an effort to diffuse the "crazy returning veteran" stigma.  But refusing to acknowledge a problem doesn't make it go away!

One investigation by the New York Times in 2008 studied homicides by veterans between 2001 and 2008:

This showed an 89 percent increase [of homicides by veterans] during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The increase occurred even though there have been fewer troops stationed in the United States in the last six years and the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower.

[M]ilitary health care officials are seeing a spectrum of psychological issues, with an estimated half of the returning National Guard members, 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of marines reporting mental health problems, according to a Pentagon task force.

Decades of studies on the problems of Vietnam veterans have established links between combat trauma and higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, gun ownership, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse — and criminality. On a less scientific level, such links have long been known.

The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, considered the most thorough analysis of this population, found that 15 percent of the male veterans still suffered from full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder more than a decade after the war ended. Half of the veterans with active PTSD had been arrested or in jail at least once, and 34.2 percent more than once. Some 11.5 percent of them had been convicted of felonies, and veterans are more likely to have committed violent crimes than nonveterans, according to government studies. In the mid-1980s, with so many Vietnam veterans behind bars that Vietnam Veterans of America created chapters in prisons, veterans made up a fifth of the nation’s inmate population.

As Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get enmeshed in the criminal justice system, former advocates for Vietnam veterans are disheartened by what they see as history repeating itself.

But it isn't just homicide.  Suicide is another major issue that is linked to PTSD and, more often than not, firearms.

From THIS article from the Wall Street Journal:

A 15-month-study on the rise in suicides over the last two years found 160 suicides among active-duty personnel, 1,713 suicide attempts and 146 deaths from high-risk behavior, such as drug abuse, in the year ended Sept. 30, 2009.

The number of suicides has been climbing since 2005 when there were 87 confirmed and unconfirmed suicides.

The current numbers are the highest since the Army began tracking the issue in the 1980s. Veterans groups say it's hard to make comparisons to the Vietnam era because of changes in how the data are tracked. Military suicide rates also tend to increase during wartime.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice-chief of staff of the Army who has led the effort to reduce suicides, said that 79% of suicides were soldiers who had one deployment or had yet to be deployed.

There's a graph on that page which shows a meteoric rise in suicides by servicemen, which I have reposted here.

Another article by TIME magazine has shows similar numbers.  From that article:

"Combat increases fearlessness about death and the capability for suicide," said Craig Bryan, a University of Texas psychologist, briefing Pentagon officials in January. The combination of combat exposure and ready access to guns can be lethal to anyone contemplating suicide. About half of soldiers who kill themselves use weapons, and the figure rises to 93% among those deployed in war zones.

In a Huffington Post article on the subject, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki commented that of the more than 30,000 suicides each year in America, about 20 percent are committed by veterans

The effects of PTSD are horrible, leading to substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, and potentially suicide, homicide, and psychotic breaks.  Can the veterans be blamed for their destructive actions?  Not really.  We as a country have to do a better job at treatment and prevention.

So I don't blame Michael Thomas Mason for shooting up a parking lot and having behavior that led to him becoming a quadriplegic.  It's tragic.

But this shooting didn't have to happen.  Nor do most of the PTSD-related homicides and suicides.

Here's what we can do to limit the homicides and suicides, which typically involve firearms.  First, the veterans, their families, and their therapists must insist that the veteran remove all weapons from his possession.  Second, if he has severe PTSD reactions, to the point that he has to seek therapy and may have a psychotic break, or if he has expressed violent or self-destructive behavior, he should be listed as mentally unfit for gun ownership and purchase with the NICS background checking system.  Finally, cases of PTSD-related crimes should be reported on, highlighting the dangers of PTSD and gun ownership.  Awareness and education is key in treating and understanding this issue.

Let's work together to prevent another Michael Thomas Mason shooting event, and create a new trajectory for our communities.

UPDATE (1/28/13):  Today it was announced that Michael Mason has, after just over two years of suffering in paralysis, has died from his wound, while at the VA hospital.  HERE is a good write-up about his death and the severity of his PTSD.


  1. Since my blog post over the week-end highlighted the issue of PTSD and murders/suicides related to veterans and also to PTSD, this awareness is happening nation wide. The article I posted about was in my local newspaper article in Duluth, Minnesota. This is a serious problem and we must deal with it. Thanks for the good information. It adds to what I said in my post on

  2. If his PTSD is bad enough that he is a danger to himself or others, then go through the process to adjudicate him. Then he'll be barred under federal law from having a firearm.

    Otherwise the guy has rights, and we don't remove rights from people in this country without due process.

  3. Sebastian, how do you adjudicate him as mentally ill if he hasn't committed a crime?

    No, the only answer here is to require the VA therapist to have him listed as mentally ill with NICS, which apparently isn't required for this illness.

    Also required, and much more important, is personal responsibility by him and his loved ones to insist that he remove the firearms, at least until cured.

    But you're right, as sick as it is, he has the legal right to keep his gun until reported to NICS, and even at that point I think it only prevents him from buying another -- not removal of them -- until he commits a crime.

  4. Every state has a legal process by which someone can be adjudicated mentally ill and there ineligible to possess firearms under federal law. The federal government, acting through the Veterans Administration, also has procedures to accomplish the same thing for veterans under their care. But it has to be a determination made by a lawfully composed body, and in a fair and open hearing in order to satisfy due process.

    So the question here isn't really whether this person should have a gun. I think all reasonable people agree that people adjudicated mentally ill people can be prohibited from owning firearms. The real question is why this individual was not so adjudicated.

  5. One of the significant problems is that there isn't a way for someone to be declared temporarily unfit due to mental illness--it is either permanent or nothing. There are also issues with the VA declaring someone unfit without due process.

    Under those circumstances I would be reluctant to ask for help--so the net result is likely to be that someone with an untreated mental illness keeps their guns, while someone who got treatment and was cured loses theirs. Veterans should not have to risk giving up their gun rights forever in order to get help--especially for what may be a temporary and treatable condition.

    What level of mental illness or mental health treatment should trigger a loss of constitutional rights?

  6. Actually, Sevesteen, being added to the NICS list due to mental health reasons is not permanent. You can go through the appeals process to have your name removed. It takes some work, including fees, forms, and at least one hearing with a committee, but it is do-able:

    But it is still worthwhile: being added to the list can potentially save lives, which is worth the trouble and small cost.

  7. Actually Baldr, you can get a carry license in Hawaii, New Jersey or New York City. Same likelihood of success--not quite impossible, but not going to happen for ordinary people.

    Did you actually read the process of the link you provided? It is about correcting record errors and transferring the corrections into the NICS database, not how long a prohibition lasts--Whether or not you were treated for PTSD, not whether it is permanent or temporary.

  8. Baldr said"But it is still worthwhile: being added to the list can potentially save lives, which is worth the trouble and small cost"
    WELL isn’t that just nice of you to say. "Potentially save lives" is used by every liberal hack that wants to remove another person’s constitutional right for their on selfish reasons. In this case your desire to take guns out of the peoples hands.
    PTSD can be as simple as bad dreams and some loss of sleep or as bad as the case you present in your attempt to vilify Veterans.
    If we went your route then a veteran would be at the whims of whatever VA office or official that is put in charge of violating my constitutional rights. He might just be an anti gun zealots like Baldr and submit papers to violate my rights without valid cause and without due process.(Potentially save lives)

    If a Veteran is a real threat to himself or others then there is a process to adjudicate him.
    This process has and can be use when the situation warants it.
    I have not given up my civil rights because I served my country or because I seek care at the VA.
    I fought oversees and I will now fight stateside to stop extremist like you from taking my civil rights away.
    You Are Wrong.

  9. Thanks for your service, Anonymous. But it's you who sounds like the extremist here. Sorry you don't like what I have to say, and that you don't trust VA medical professionals. I hope your "stateside fighting" is limited to words only. Frankly, what you wrote sounds like a threat to me.

    I don't "vilify veterens" by being concerned about this issue. In fact, my family has a number of veterans past and present, including my niece and her husband, who are veterans of the Iraq war as MPs.

    I'm not suggesting that every veteran with mild cases of PTSD (with "bad dreams and some loss of sleep") have their weapons removed or be added to the NICS mental health list -- I'm suggesting this for those with severe cases. And I agree that due process should be followed. As Sebastian said, there are ways to adjudicate them as mentally ill and add them to NICS. Sadly, this is seldom done.

    More importantly, I advocate that the veterans themselves and their loved ones take responsibile actions to remove the guns themselves, without the need for legal interference.

  10. Great retort but you are arguing with yourself. What you said is
    “The only answer here is to require the VA therapist to have him listed as mentally ill with NICS, which apparently isn't required for this illness".
    No I do not trust a simple therapist who might be assigned to review my case. In the VA system many decisions are made about my treatments and medications by people that never see me. They review my records and often I have found these record entries to be in error. He could have a negative bias just like you which will severely slant his perspective and decision. Currently there is a heavy burden of prove and judicial over hatch. If he could just report his "medical judgment" directs to NCIC then, I’m afraid, we (veterans) will totally loose faith in the system and decline to seek treatment. It is not a simple matter to get your rights reinstated. It is a very lengthy process, very burdenous and expensive. Don't trivialize such a serious event.
    My threat is real. I promise to protest, complain, contact senators, donate money against your cause and generally fight you with all legal means necessary. Don't try to change my words to imply I threaten to harm anyone. The only thing I wish to harm is your political anti gun stance.
    You are wrong

  11. Not for nothing, as a combat veteran, one of the last things I will ever do is see a shrink about anything. This is simply because of the difficulty of getting off NICS prohibited list.

  12. A question for Komrade Odinson... What about non-veterans suffering from PTSD?

  13. And I agree that due process should be followed. As Sebastian said, there are ways to adjudicate them as mentally ill and add them to NICS. Sadly, this is seldom done.

    So all you're advocating is that the existing disqualification process should be pursued more consistently by state bodies, not for the creation of new laws that would allow a "VA therapist" to unilaterally remove veterans' rights?

    If the goal is truly just to make gun possession a bit more difficult for people whose instability poses an immediate threat, would you agree that it's a good idea to simplify and standardize the process for regaining one's civil rights after successful treatment of the disorder, so that the "trouble and cost" (which, as a New Jerseyan, I can tell you is often a much more significant burden than control advocates would like us to believe) doesn't discourage independence-minded vets from seeking treatment?

  14. To the last "Anonymous": Clearly PTSD has many causes, and I don't want to trivialize those. In this post I am focusing only on combat-caused PTSD and veterens.

    The danger of guns in the hands of severe PTSD sufferers, whatever the cause, is the same, and the symptoms are similar. And I would offer generally the same advice for them in terms of having their therapists add them to the NICS system and having their families intervene.

  15. Elmo, yes, this is correct: Already there is a process in place in most cases, it just needs to be enforced. I am willing to believe it could be streamlined, as well, both the submission of names and the removal of names. And in these cases I don't know if addition of any new laws would be necessary, except maybe to strengthen the reporting process. For instance, I don't know how the reporting process varies from state to state, and limits on temporary placement of names on the list.

  16. I'm skeptical of "streamlining" processes for removing people's Constitutional rights, of course (I assume all reasonable people are), so details would be crucial, but in principle it doesn't look like we have a significant disagreement here.

    There are plenty of people between "he's fine" and "he can't be trusted outside an institution" who might be well served by freedom to move as they please, but without easy access to dangerous tools. In those cases, I think most of us can agree that an orderly, open, narrowly targeted system of due process for temporarily suspending a person's right to drive and possess guns (to use the relevant tools from your example) is reasonable.

  17. @Baldr - "Sebastian, how do you adjudicate him as mentally ill if he hasn't committed a crime?"

    Usually it's done by a medical determination that the individual poses a threat to himself and/or others.


    Just curious, how many police are involved in criminal or negligent shootings? Due to the high level of misconduct among police officers; should we remove guns from police?


    "One of the significant problems is that there isn't a way for someone to be declared temporarily unfit due to mental illness--it is either permanent or nothing."

    Wow, that'd be some common sense. Temporarily restriction for those suffering temporary issues.


    "But it's you who sounds like the extremist here."

    Baldr I think you're over-reacting. I think it's clear that we are discussing a civil/political fight over issues.


    Banning pens could save lives. If we banned pens, then Presidents couldn't sign executive orders launching missiles all over the world or starting wars we shouldn't be in. By banning pens, lives could be saved. In fact, I'll advocate that by banning pens we could eliminate most cases of PTSD because we wouldn't be sending our young men all over the world.


    "As Sebastian said, there are ways to adjudicate them as mentally ill and add them to NICS. Sadly, this is seldom done. "

    Sebastian pointed out that doing so essentially eliminates an individual's rights for life. Hence the hesitency to do so. If a soldier comes back right after he watched his entire squad be killed. He's going to have a lot on his mind. Likely suffer from PTSD. But in just a few years later after counseling and healing they might be fine. But now they've lost their rights forever.

    Baldr, you have mentioned wanting common sense gun laws. Wouldn't enabling a way for a soldier who suffered PSTD to restore their civil liberties be a good common sense gun law.

    Maybe your organization should advocate for that change, since doing so will improve reporting.

  18. Do I think this man should pay for his crimes? Yes. PTSD should not be an excuse anyone from commenting a crime. I have had PTSD according to my DR's for 6 years maybe longer. My thing is anger. Lots of it. I talk to a social worker from the VA once a week and get my meds adjusted once a month because the VA Dr's don't know their heads from their asses. I struge everyday with this overwhelming anger. Sometimes I don't know why. The key thing is know.what your triggers are and have something or someone that can help you through this. My wife of 13 didn't get me with PTSD , however she puts up with me. My daughter adores me to no end. The thing I'm trying to figure out is why the VA is.taking my right to own or posses a firearm. Well they told me it's because they found me incompetent because I don't control my own finances. Well way back in 2002.the US Army told us Soldiers to have family members to take over your financial obligations because there will be no internet in Kuwait or Iraq. Well after 14 months we get back from our deployment we were debriefed and told to let our family members keep doing what they where doing while we where gone. I said ok this is understandable because they have this the way they want it. Well unfortunately the VA sees it a different way. So please don't judge everyone combat vet for PTSD. It's just the ones who don't get help or refuse to that fail them selves and their families.