San Francisco Chronicle
Keep guns away from the mentally ill
AI seriously considered using a gun back when I was inadequately treated. Had I chosen to do so, I and many individuals in my proximity might have perished.
mass shooting occurs every 8.3 days in California on average, according to the Gun Violence Archive. This past weekend, one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern California history left 11 people dead and at least 10 more wounded at a dance studio during Lunar New Year festivities in Monterey Park, in the heart of Los Angeles County’s Chinese American community.
We don’t yet know the full details of this shameful act of cowardice. But the incident can’t help but remind me, as a formerly untreated mentally ill person and someone who angrily erupted into violence earlier in my life, of the importance of keeping guns out of the wrong hands.
It has been 25 years since I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 1, a mood disorder more severe than Type 2, which subjects patients to wild swings of emotion. Around the time of my diagnosis, I was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon — a felony — for brandishing a golf club at someone.
Today, I am under treatment and stable with my bipolar disorder. My sentence was commuted to simple assault, a misdemeanor, which was expunged from my record years ago. I was fortunate that my life’s path did not follow that of Nathaniel Berhow, who in November 2019 killed two schoolmates and seriously injured three others at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), before killing himself on his 16th birthday.
It easily could have.
I seriously considered using a gun back when I was inadequately treated. Had I chosen to do so, I and many individuals in my proximity might have perished. Society would have suffered grievously, and my family would have been scarred for life.
Only a lucky sliver of self-discernment on my part stopped my cycle of violence — a personality characteristic that the untreated mentally ill and unreformed convicted felons often do not have. That is why, in my opinion, convicted felons and those with mental illness should have no individual right to bear arms.
Based on my own experience with both the law and with untreated mental illness, I believe a three-part strategy needs to be enacted at the federal level to greatly diminish future incidents of mass shootings.
• Establish an online onsite psychiatric evaluation, capable of picking up a mental illness or signs of violent tendencies, for all prospective gun buyers.
Establish an online onsite universal criminal background check for all prospective gun buyers.
Establish fines, imprisonment and revocation of federal firearms licenses for gun dealers who sell to individuals who fail to meet the criteria.
A Pew Research Center poll published in April 2021 revealed bipartisan support for preventing those with mental illnesses from purchasing guns; 85% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats were in favor. And yet there has been no meaningful federal movement toward restricting gun access to the mentally ill.
The same Pew Research Center poll also revealed bipartisan support for subjecting private gun sales and gun show sales to background checks; 70% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats were in favor. And yet, as of now, only federal firearms licensees pursue such background checks.
According to the National Institute of Justice, we know that most mass shooters obtain their weapons legally. The main way many mass shooters get guns is not from the streets, but from federal firearms licensees — who look the other way as they sell guns to the clearly disturbed or to those red-flagged on their background checks. In an interview with PBS’ Frontline, Julius Wachtel, a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, explained that this process is much faster than looking for a street dealer. Wachtel said that according to the ATF, around 8% of the nation’s 124,000 retail gun dealers are responsible for selling the majority of handguns that are used in crimes. This is fortunate, in a sense, because if the ATF were to successfully go after this small cadre of rogue entrepreneurs, criminal gun use could be rapidly curtailed.
Almost every significant attempt at federal gun control, up to this point, has focused on taking guns away from people. Consider the debate around AR-15 assault-style weapons. I believe we should put the focus instead on keeping certain people away from guns. By pragmatically preserving the rights of fit, law-abiding and responsible gun owners, and keeping gun dealers honest, we can create a politically feasible pathway to curbing our gun violence epidemic.
Mental illness and criminal behavior no longer blight my life. The closest thing to a weapon that I own is a baseball bat, which I use exclusively for playing baseball. My future is wide open, and I am alive and free to repay my debt to society and to restore honor to my family. That is more important to me, and to society, than any alleged right to bear arms.