The mother of the man accused of killing little 6-year-old Makayla Sitton said her son, Paul Michael Merhige, recently purchased two guns. She said her son had a mental breakdown when he was 19-years-old and has suffered from severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder since then. Among the drugs he had been prescribed: Ativan, an anti-anxiety benzo, and Seroquel, an antipsychotic used to treat depression, bipolar and schizophrenia – which worked well for me.
She also said this:
“A person with a history of mental problems should not be able to get a gun,” she said. “This is such a big country. Why isn’t there a database of mentally ill people?”
Actually, there is a database of mentally ill people and a federal law that prohibits gun sales to people who have been declared mentally ill by a court. But neither the database nor the law would have prevented Merhige from buying a gun.
There are loopholes. What if you are mentally ill and come from a family that can afford to send you to a private hospital, treatment center, take care of you at home or pay your rent? You have a history of suicide attempts and violence but you never enter the court system because your family protects you from the law.
Or, what if you have been involuntarily committed but your state does not enter your case in the FBI’s database? The law only works if the clerks of court report your commitment to the state law enforcement agency that enters your name into the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System database. Gun dealers must consult the database before selling a gun.
That law has been on the books since federal lawmakers passed the 1969 Gun Control Act. The FBI’s NICS database was created in 1994 to collect and store names of ineligible buyers. But many states don’t bother to report mental health commitments. Only 22 states were reporting in 2007, when Seung Hui Cho bought a gun and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. A judge had found Cho mentally ill and ordered him to treatment but Virginia officials failed to report his commitment to the FBI.
But the law and database did not – and could not – protect Makayla and three others killed on Thanksgiving, including the gunman’s twin sisters, because Merhige was never declared insane, incompetent or involuntarily committed. His court record was clean – although his mental illness is well documented, according to his family.
The law is well intentioned but makes me queasy. Maybe it has prevented other massacres. We will never know. But I do know this: If you want anything bad enough, you can and will get it. Just ask any addict or alcoholic. I could drive a mile north of my house and buy a gun right now. It’s 10:30 pm. Or, I could go to the county fairground the next time a gun show comes to town and buy a gun without any checks at all. Or, I could look in the glove box of my neighbor’s car – where he keeps a loaded handgun (despite my yelling at him one Saturday afternoon when he left the car’s windows down and doors unlocked.)
And who is to say that a person who was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital 20 years ago for attempting suicide is still a danger and should not be allowed to purchase a hunting rifle and go deer hunting with his buddies? What about alcoholism – also a mental illness? Should an alcoholic who is court ordered into treatment be forever barred from owning a gun after years of sobriety?
I don’t know the answer to this conundrum. The journalist in me, who covered the trials of many mentally ill killers, says “Hell, no! Don’t let them ever get near a gun.” The recovered alcoholic with depression and bipolar inside of me says it is not fair to take away a citizen’s constitutional right to bear arms because they were very, very sick at a point in the lives.
Some of us do get well, you know.
The U.S. Marshals Service has launched a nationwide manhunt to find Merhige.
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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (December 4, 2009)
Last reviewed: 4 Dec 2009