Following Monday's shooting at D.C.'s Navy Yard, there are fresh calls for a national discussion about gun control. The discussion was revived after the Newtown shootings last December, in which 20 children and six adults were killed. But in the spring, that discussion was tabled.
George Washington University law, history and sociology professor Robert Cottrol has been following the gun control debate for four decades now, and he says the issue continues to be a thorny one.
"If we look at the shooting in the Navy Yard, none of the standard gun control arguments fit," he says.
For instance, Aaron Alexis had background checks when he bought his gun from a Virginia dealer. He also had a secret clearance from the Navy. And he used a shotgun, not an assault rifle.
"In terms of the gun control issue, focus on this or that gun as a bad gun is misdirected," Cottrol says. "What we need to do is focus on who should be eligible to buy firearms and who should not be, and how do you integrate mental health."
Cottrol says mental health is a difficult issue "because we want to encourage people to go to mental health professionals, but we don't want the fact that they've visited to be a reason for losing the right to purchase a firearm for legit purposes."
The question, Cottrol says, is how do you fine-tune the system so that individuals who are clearly disturbed are prevented from buying firearms, but not everybody who has a psychological issue and visits a psychiatrist or psychologist finds themselves on a banned list?
"But," says Cottrol, "certainly looking at the clues in Mr. Alexis's background, the incident in Rhode Island where he claimed that he was hearing voices, the incidents of discharging a firearm at people or at his neighbor's ceiling — all that should have raised red flags, and somehow that wasn't integrated into any kind of system. And that's been the common thread in all of these mass shootings, people with histories of mental disturbance."
Cottrol says it'd be nice to have a fresh start in the gun-control debate, but "the question I would ask is, what do you want done? In a country where there are 300 million guns in civilian hands, are you seeking a ban? If so, how do you plan to enforce it — going door-to-door in every home searching out guns? If you fear a police state, that will be a police state.
Cottrol says the solution doesn't lie in a gun ban, but rather "in refining our steps in terms of who is able to purchase guns. What I'd like to see is mental health, gun owners, law enforcement sit down and have a conversation about what kind of mental disabilities should prevent someone from being able to purchase a firearm. Look at it and develop some realistic criteria."
[Music: "Mementomori" by Bexar Bexar from Haralambos]