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September 21, 2013 10:45 AM “The Sweetest Person I’ve Ever Known”

Could anything have prevented Aaron Alexis from buying a shotgun?

By Max Ehrenfreund

In hindsight, it is easy to see that Aaron Alexis should not have been given a security clearance, and that he should not have been allowed to buy a weapon of any kind. It is tempting to think that our gun laws as they stand should have prevented him from killing 12 people at the Navy Yard on Monday, if it weren’t for a coincidental series of careless mistakes on the part of authorities.

Yet what if Alexis hadn’t become murderous? A week ago today, when Alexis was buying his Remington from the range in Virginia, would his occasional episodes of vandalism and violent misbehavior have justified prohibiting him from buying a gun under the law? Although he’d fired a weapon in anger on at least two occasions, once in Seattle in 2004 and again in Fort Worth in 2010, he’d never aimed a gun at anyone, and he’d never hurt anyone. Beginning last month, he started talking to police officers and medical personnel about his insomnia and his hallucinations, but it is difficult to imagine how a different mental health system could have treated him in time. He was hearing voices, but he told Veterans Affairs personnel on August 28 that he had no intention of doing harm. A woman who knew him in Fort Worth called him “the sweetest person I’ve ever known.

The shooting at the Navy Yard demonstrates exactly why stricter gun control is necessary, because even if our criminal and mental health systems were perfectly efficient, they would not have prevented him from buying a gun under current law. There was actually very little in Alexis’s history to suggest that he might become dangerous, which demonstrates that background checks alone cannot reliably prevent people from acquiring guns who intend to use them maliciously. What kind of legal restraints would be more effective?

The most important answer to that question is that Virginia’s existing gun laws saved several people’s lives this week by preventing Alexis from purchasing an assault rifle because he was not a resident of the state. An AR-15 would have been much more lethal than Alexis’s Remington, which must be pumped each time it is fired.

Of course, we are all fortunate that Alexis was not living in Virginia, which have would have allowed him to buy the AR-15. That fact makes his case another piece of anecdotal evidence for a national ban on assault weapons.

A waiting period might have prevented the massacre entirely. The District of Columbia has a mandatory 10-day waiting period for all firearms purchases — hardly a burden on anyone who wants a gun solely for recreational purposes or to protect themselves — and several states have similar laws. Alexis’s condition was obviously volatile. Perhaps in a week, someone might have gotten help for him before he had a chance to kill anyone.

Then again, we could speculate endlessly about what this man might have done or not have done under different circumstances, but we’ll never know, and it isn’t possible to rewrite the last several days of Alexis’s life.

What we do know is that there are simple and uncontroversial reforms that would prevent a large fraction of everyday gun violence in this country. Massacres such as the one at the Navy Yard are unusual, but giving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives the authority and the resources to effectively enforce existing laws, inadequate though they may be, would make it harder for ordinary criminals to arm themselves.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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