There is no federal law against mentally unstable adults possessing a firearm in the U.S. Psychotic episodes, recurring delusions, illnesses such as paranoid schizophrenia or dementia: None of these disqualify Americans from buying or owning guns. Only someone who has been officially declared "mentally defective," or who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, is prohibited.
That helps explain how a violent young man who complained of hearing voices in his head was able to travel from Alaska with a firearm last week, enter the Fort Lauderdale airport, and proceed to murder five and wound six.
Esteban Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran, had previously attracted law enforcement's attention in Alaska, where he had been living before the shooting, for a series of domestic disturbances, including assault. After Santiago visited an FBI office complaining that his mind was controlled, he was evaluated at a mental-health facility. His gun was temporarily withheld but soon returned to him.
Voices and violence are not sufficient cause to disarm someone in Alaska. Other states, such as California and Washington, do have laws permitting family members or authorities to petition a court to have guns temporarily removed from individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others. The laws are so new that it is hard to measure their impact, though a similar law in Connecticut appears to have helped to reduce suicides. But they are important steps toward curtailing the madness, literal and figurative, that fuels American massacres.
There's no guarantee, of course, that such laws would've prevented Santiago's particular rampage. But Santiago's aunt told a newspaper that her nephew was noticeably disturbed upon his return from war in 2011. "He lost his mind," she said in Spanish. But not his gun rights.
--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Michael Newman.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org .