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February 16, 2009

Deranged Shooters, Legal Handguns

A horrific tragedy occurred last month when a 24 year-old man opened fire with a handgun outside a popular under-21 nightclub in Portland, Oregon. On January 24, Erik S. Ayala drove downtown to The Zone, got out of his car, and began shooting into the crowd gathered outside. He fired 8-10 times before fatally shooting himself. Ayala had taken a tranquilizer prior to the shooting, but otherwise had no alcohol or drugs in his system.

The shooting took the lives of two bright young women: Marta “Tika” Paz de Noboa, 17, a Peruvian exchange student, and Ashley Wilks, a 16-year old high school sophomore. Seven other individuals were injured, including the manager of a nearby restaurant and other foreign exchange students.

Like the shooters in the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, Erik Ayala had an established and well-known history of mental illness and violent tendencies. In high school, Ayala was identified as a “student of concern.” School officials received an anonymous tip in September 2000 that Ayala had made threats against others and talked about bringing a gun to school. In December of that year, he was hospitalized for attempting suicide by overdosing on over-the-counter pills.

As a result, Ayala was diagnosed with “numerous mental disorders,” including schizophrenia, and received intensive counseling from a team composed of school officials, psychologists, police, county mental health experts, and Oregon Youth Authority officials (which was formed in response to the 1998 Thurston High School shooting in Springfield, Oregon). This treatment was administered during a month-long stay at a Portland mental health facility and continued when Ayala returned to school.

Once Ayala graduated high school in 2002, his treatment ended (in part because he was unable to obtain health care insurance). He worked as a data entry operator for the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services until July 2007, and then part-timed with a temp agency. At the time of the shootings, police say that Ayala was unemployed and battling depression.

Ayala purchased the weapon used in the shooting, an Italian-manufactured EAA Witness 9mm pistol, for about $350 from 99 Pawn & Guns in Milwaukie, Oregon. He visited the pawn shop on January 6 to browse and returned the next day to purchase the handgun, but was told he did not have appropriate identification. Two days later, he returned with an alien resident card and proof of three months residency in the United States in the form of utility bills. Ayala then passed the required instant background check and left the store with his gun later that day.

Despite his history of mental illness and threatening behavior, Ayala appears never to have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution or declared “mentally defective” by a court of law. He was therefore not prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms.

That’s not to say that Ayala’s handgun purchase couldn’t have been prevented, however. States such as New York and New Jersey require would-be purchasers to obtain a license/permit before they are allowed to buy handguns. The permitting process involves an actual background investigation where law enforcement officials interview significant figures in the applicant’s life (such as a spouse or relatives) about issues ranging from substance abuse to the applicant’s mental health. Under this process, Ayala would certainly have been denied a permit once authorities spoke with members of his family or local officials.

Commenting on the Portland shooting, Dr. Joseph D. Bloom, professor emeritus at the Oregon Health & Science University Department of Psychiatry, said, "It's all becoming very familiar. A person with recent losses and some history of past difficulties who is depressed and becomes suicidal, and then deliberately purchases a gun with a clear plan in mind to end his life and take out his anger on society by a random shooting event and ends it by taking his own life."

Such tragedies don’t have to be familiar, however, and won’t be for long if our elected officials take the necessary steps to assure that gun purchasers are not a threat to themselves or others.

1 comment:

  1. It is so upsetting that this is a story we hear time and time again of individuals who should not be, but are, able to obtain guns.
    This is why history of mental illness should be included in a background check. It should simply be a qualification and there is no rational reason to deny this information to be added to NICS. Such a measure will not be affecting mentally healthy, responsible individuals from purchasing firearms, but rather, will work towards keep guns out of the hands of individuals who are unable to handle them properly.