The shooting a Fort Hood could have been prevented. The shooter, 34 year old Ivan Lopez, a soldier who spent around three months in Iraq, was under treatment for severe mental distress. He was receiving anti-depressant drugs and other medications. While his full medical record remains secret, the information about his illness and the fact he was being evaluated for PTSD (although his minimal combat experience suggests that was not his problem) tells us this was a solider that had a problem that should not have been left alone. But he was.
Under Army procedures, as I understand them, someone being treated by the doctors with severe mental health issues, other than being hospitalized would normally be recommended for a Medical Board review. It is not clear that Lopez was recommended for a medical board, but even if he was it takes a considerable time to convene such a board and then gather all the evidence and information needed to reach a determination. Meanwhile the subject continues his or her service in the Army.
That is clearly an operational loophole that is unacceptable. To let someone loose who is having difficulty coping with normal life issues is to put a walking time bomb on the street and among fellow soldiers and personnel on a military base. It is even worse in real operations.
The loophole largely exists because of medical privacy rules, which apply not only to the military but in the society at large. But in the Army, which operates in a certain proscribed space, it seems especially unacceptable to have someone on the loose with so severe a condition as Specialist Lopez.
We can’t blame the doctors here, because the problem is clearly a big hole in the system. Lopez met all the criteria of a big risk, but coping with that risk is terribly limited by privacy restrictions and lack of alternative procedures.
It does not end there. Specialist Lopez was able to go to a gun store and buy a Smith and Wesson .45 caliber handgun. He also was able to buy many ammunition clips for the weapon, which he may have bought at the store where he purchased the weapon, or elsewhere.
Under current rules, the gun store is obliged to check out the applicant and to ask him to declare whether or whether not he was recently hospitalized. Other than that and a police check, if the purchaser is clear of the law, he gets the gun. The information about his mental condition is not used in any way in checking him out, mostly because the privacy rules disallow it.
This is a big flaw. Someone with depression and paranoia often will play out his imagining by buying a weapon to confront those he fears are threats. If there is no way to prevent that from happening, there will be more Ft. Hoods in future, and more gun crimes committed by people with severe mental illness.
It would make sense that a database of people under strong medication for mental illness should not be allowed to purchase guns. This information could be held by the police or FBI and used in background checks when guns are purchased. Today that is not the case.
So, our concern with privacy has some deadly loopholes that need fixing.
Our thoughts and prayers go our to those who lost loved ones at Ft. Hood, and to those who were wounded we hope for a speedy recovery. We salute the female military policewoman who confronted Lopez. She is a brave woman who, by doing her job, saved many lives. She is a hero.
Most of all, it is time to reassess how we handle the severely mentally ill and guns, and it is time to modify our privacy rules to protect the public and our military forces.