We Need to Investigate These Mass Shootings and Identify the Flaws in Our System

My parents taught me that the first step in correcting a mistake is investigating what went wrong and then not repeating that error.

Sadly, we are overlooking this rudimentary logic in the wake of the horrific Dec. 14th murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

President Barack Obama moved decisively when he dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to consult with a plethora of experts. However, what happened next was predictable.  Gun control proponents demanded tighter controls. The National Rifle Association circled its wagons. Mental health advocates complained about a lack of funding and community treatment services.

Was anyone surprised?

We’ve been arguing about gun control since President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.  Both Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush appointed presidential commissions to study our failed mental health system.

What the White House and federal government hasn’t done is undertake a detailed examination of the Newtown killings and the three other recent mass murders committed by gunmen with mental disorders.

Contrast the White House’s actions with what happened in Virginia after Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people and wounded 17 others on the Virginia Tech campus before killing himself. That April 16, 2007, massacre remains the deadliest mass shooting incident by a single gunman in American history.

Then-Gov. Timothy Kaine immediately appointed a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the murders, beginning with an exhaustive look into the gunman’s past. College administrators and mental health professionals were grilled. The panel’s 127 page report pinpointed specific flaws in how university officials conducted themselves, deficiencies in Virginia’s mental health laws, and failures in community mental health services.

While that panel was conducting its probe, a separate task force created by the Chief Justice of Virginia’s Supreme Court was reviewing the state’s out-dated mental health laws and studying roadblocks that prevent people from getting treatment. As the parent of an adult son with a mental illness, I participated in that group’s retooling of Virginia’s involuntary commitment criteria.

The Virginia legislature used the Virginia Tech investigative report and the Chief Justice’s recommendations to adopt legislation that closed loop-holes in gun purchasing practices, up-dated state mental health laws, and improved community mental health services.

They key to Virginia’s success was that state legislators were made aware of specific flaws that were uncovered by the governor’s panel as well as suggested remedies offered by the Chief Justice’s experts.

I’m not a big fan of federal blue ribbon panel studies but believe it would be worthwhile for our government to thoroughly investigate the shootings in Newtown, Conn., Tucson, Ariz., Aurora, Colo. and then compare those tragedies to the Virginia Tech murders. We need a thoughtful analysis that goes beyond the obvious — that each gunman had a mental disorder and each used weapons capable of multiple shots.

I’ve read editorials that claimed the “dangerous” criteria for involuntary commitment prevented the Jared Loughner’s parents and college officials from forcing the Tucson shooter into treatment. Is that accurate? The alleged gunman in Aurora was seeing a psychiatrist. What kept that doctor from recognizing and reporting that a mass murder was being planned? News reports have claimed the Sandy Hook gunman had a mental illness and he was outraged because his mother was looking for a boarding school where she could send him. Is that true?

Under public pressure, Virginia legislators were able to find common ground after they stopped debating generalities and were shown specific flaws.

The federal government could learn from Virginia’s approach. 

Jessie Close raised concerns on Monday about medical privacy. Yesterday, Dr. Dinah Miller pointed out that states were rushing forward with laws that might cause more harm than good. It strikes me that in our hurry to do something, we have put the cart before the horse.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Sounds like the Virginia legislature’s approach to the problem was identifying specific flaws in the state’s mental health system and not focused so much on gun control. For me and my family it is all about the bare bones mental health services that are unavailable to already stigmatized people. Perhaps Virginia could be a model for future state and federal committees trying to resolve why these horrific scenarios occur so often. Having participated in this effort, you have a sense of how this could make a difference/succeed. I like your idea!

    In reference to Adam Lanza, I heard he was in awe of the Finn who killed so many people in Finland and wanted to out do him by going to an elementary school. Whether it is true or not, this is what people in my area were saying.


  2. This is what my family, NAMI members and friends are looking for.

    Senator Stabenow, Author of Bipartisan Mental Health Legislation, Applauds Announcement to Expand Mental Health Services

    Wednesday, Feb 20

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    U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, lead sponsor of the bipartisan Excellence in Mental Health Act, today praised an announcement by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that outlines provisions to expand access to mental health services for 62 million more Americans. The announcement outlines new standards that will take effect in 2014 to ensure mental health and substance abuse services, including behavioral health treatment, are covered as essential health benefits in all health insurance plans. Senator Stabenow authored one of the key provisions of the new standards that hold insurance companies accountable for covering mental health care in the same way as physical healthcare.

    “Today’s announcement is an important step toward strengthening America’s mental health services and making mental health a top priority,” said Stabenow. “We need to treat people who need mental health services the same as those who need physical health services. I’m glad the Administration is taking action to ensure that individuals living with behavioral disorders and their families get the care they need.”

    In the past, nearly 20 percent of individuals purchasing insurance didn’t have access to mental health services, and nearly one third had no coverage for substance abuse services. Today’s announcement by Secretary Sebelius seeks to fix that gap by expanding coverage of mental health benefits. For more information click here.

    Earlier this month, Stabenow led a bipartisan group of senators to introduce The Excellence in Mental Health Act. Introduced in the wake of the recent tragedy in Newtown, her legislation puts Community Mental Health Centers on more equal footing with other health centers by improving quality standards and expanding access to ensure more people can get the mental health care they need. The bill will allow up to 1.5 million more Americans living with a behavioral disorder to get the care they need. With at least 25% of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing some type of mental health condition, Community Mental Health Centers are expected to soon be serving 200,000 veterans. The bill is cosponsored by a bipartisan team of Senators including Debbie Stabenow, Roy Blunt (R-MO), Jack Reed (D-RI), Susan Collins (R-ME), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Begich (D-AK), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Chris Coons (D-DE).

    David O. Russell, Oscar-nominated director of Silver Linings Playbook, joined Sen. Stabenow at the news conference announcing the bill to discuss the importance of removing the stigma associated with mental illness. Mr. Russell’s experience with his son, Matthew, living with mood disorders led to his writing the screenplay (based on the book of the same name) for and directing Silver Linings Playbook, which was nominated for 8 Academy Awards this year. The film explores the life of Pat Solatano Jr. (played by Bradley Cooper), a man living with bipolar disorder who moves in with his parents following his release from a mental health institution and tries to rebuild his life. Mr. Russell discussed the need to de-stigmatize mental illness and expand coverage to ensure people get the care they need.

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