Mandatory, comprehensive mental health evaluations for assault weapons purchasers

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I am a psychologist who has worked in the criminal justice system for over a decade. I have conducted thousands of forensic evaluations (including risk assessments) on defendants charged with various offenses, including murder and other highly violent crimes.

I fully support an assault weapons ban, and hope that it is passed without hesitation.  Until then, I believe that we need to find immediate solutions in areas of common ground with those who seek to protect gun owners’ Second Amendment rights, despite our disagreements. The midterm elections are many months away, and I don’t want to wait until Democrats (maybe) regain control of Congress (at which point a full ban will have greater support) before taking some type of action.

Who knows what other tragedies involving assault weapons may happen between now and then... tragedies that we, as a nation, could have tried to prevent? 

With that said, my motivation for this petition is to be proactive, start having a meaningful dialogue with each other, and consider possible solutions that can be put in place sooner rather than later... before any more mass shootings occur.

To also provide an appropriate professional context for the spirit and intent of this petition, several other important points should first be made:

1) The vast majority of individuals with mental illness (including severe mental illness) are neither violent, nor automatically predisposed to it. To suggest otherwise (i.e., to blame violence as arising only from individuals with mental illness) is inaccurate. Only a very small percentage of individuals with significant mental health difficulties go on to someday engage in highly violent behavior.

2) Expressions of violent behavior can arise from many other causes including developmental, cultural and interpersonal influences, that do not relate to one’s mental health.

3) Assessing one’s risk for future violence Is complex, challenging, and not an exact science. There is no absolute, 100%, foolproof way to determine who is or is not going to be violent (as two people with very similar histories and current life circumstances may cope with situations differently). Offering predictions of one’s potential for future violence is often done by making statements about “probability” or “likelihood” that such behavior may occur in the foreseeable future, as opposed to the distant future.

4) While there is no standard “psychological profile” of the typical mass shooter, a review of available literature suggests that these individuals’ collective histories have been associated with various emotional and behavioral difficulties including feeling persecuted by society, strong feelings of anger, depression and social isolation, and antisocial personality traits (e.g. impulsivity and lack of empathy), prior to engaging in this highly lethal form of violence. 

Given these caveats, below is my petition.

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After the horrifying shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, I have been shaken and deeply disturbed by the process of federal background checks to obtain guns, as there are far too many loopholes that allow individuals with unknown or incomplete mental health and behavioral histories to purchase guns immediately, without adequate review and continued oversight.

For example, the current process only identifies prospective purchasers who have already demonstrated high-risk and potentially violent behavior that has already come to the attention of legal and medical authorities (such as felony convictions and involuntary hospitalizations). By contrast, no effort is being made to assess the current functioning of prospective purchasers who have not historically experienced such outcomes, but have a significant history of mental health and behavioral difficulties that may place them as being at greater risk for acting out in a violent (and perhaps highly violent) manner in the foreseeable future.

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Currently, it only takes completion of a one-page form (i.e. the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Form 4473), where a series of questions are asked about past history, to determine if someone can obtain a gun... any gun... including assault weapons. How can we discover in minutes who may be at heightened risk for acting out in a potentially violent way, in such an incomplete manner?

No questions about one's motivation for specifically buying an assault weapon, including whether its acquisition may reflect a “tipping point” for extreme violence (now that such a method has become available to that person). No clinical interview. No mental status examination. No questions about past participation in partial hospitalization programs, dual diagnosis (i.e., substance use and mental health) programs, or other relatively restrictive treatment settings that typically require greater behavioral management and monitoring.  No review of current or past mental health treatment records. No questions about current life stressors, or available social supports to help deal with them.  No efforts to collaborate whether questions on the application are truthful, by speaking with provided (or other known) references.

Just complete a one-page form, with an answer in mere minutes for many applicants. This method is a gross oversimplification of the risk assessment process, and is wholly inadequate as a public safety measure. Simply put, as a licensed forensic practitioner, I find our current system outrageous, and entirely unacceptable.

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With that said, my petition is aimed to demand our federal government to rapidly and thoroughly overhaul their background check process for those seeking to purchase assault weapons (incorporating the input and contributions of qualified forensic mental health practitioners), so that one’s potential risk for violence in the foreseeable future can be more adequately and reliably assessed.

Through this petition, I am advocating for Congress to pass legislation that incorporates the following four changes:

1) A mandatory, comprehensive psychological evaluation for every prospective assault weapons purchaser, as part of the federal background check application process. Such an evaluation will be conducted by a licensed forensic mental health practitioner and will include (at a minimum) a structured clinical interview, mental status examination, and review of all acknowledged inpatient and outpatient treatment records (including records from family practitioners who have prescribed psychiatric medications), dating back seven years (to corroborate their current self-report and allow for additional avenues of inquiry into their overall mental health histories and current level of functioning). References would also be obtained and contacted to further corroborate histories and overall functioning, with the applicant’s consent.  Psychological testing may also be administered, as indicated and if needed, using the most appropriate and acceptable standardized assessment measures.

2) A minimum thirty-day waiting period to allow for such records to be obtained, and for third-party interviews to be conducted if necessary. Should additional time be needed to complete the review process, thirty-day extensions can be requested.

3) Generation of a summary report by the evaluating forensic practitioner that integrates all relevant findings, with a signature required before the buyer can ultimately be cleared to purchase the weapon.

4) Re-assessment of violence risk every three to six months, also by a licensed forensic mental health practitioner. I offer this because attempting to predict one's capacity for acting-out behavior is a dynamic assessment that requires a snapshot of a person's functioning at any given point in time, to ensure that no major changes in one's life circumstances or coping skills have occurred. These follow-up evaluations can potentially be modified in frequency and scope over time, depending on initial evaluation results and evidence of continued stability over future assessments.

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With these proposed modifications to the federal background check system, I believe that we will have a more proactive (versus reactive) system in place... one that more responsibly addresses the ever-growing social concern of whether a prospective purchaser of assault weapons is appropriately stable (both from an emotional and behavioral standpoint) to carry such lethal weaponry, before they ever start committing acts of extreme and senseless violence.

Thank you for reading. I hope you will sign, and circulate to as many people as possible.

 

 

 

 



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