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!
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.