As the investigation continues into the deadly shooting rampage by a mentally ill contractor at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Monday, more questions than answers are available.
Information remains sketchy, in some ways, and changing, but this much seems certain: Aaron Alexis, 34, was a mentally unstable employee of a military contractor who was able to purchase a shotgun. As an employee of a government contractor, he had access to the base, which he entered with his shotgun disassembled. He went to a men’s room, assembled the weapon and began shooting. He killed 12 people before police shot and killed him. Another eight people were wounded.
His motive remains a mystery, but two questions are immediately obvious: How did a man with mental health problems dating back a decade win a security clearance to work on a military base, and why did his mental illness not prevent him from buying the shotgun?
Alexis’ history is checkered with red flags. Reports say he exhibited signs of mental illness during his 20s, but still managed to enlist in the Navy Reserve. People who knew him described him as paranoid and delusional. He had a sleep disorder and said he heard voices and ringing in his ears. He had been treated since August by Veterans Affairs, officials said. Yet, he was apparently never diagnosed as mentally ill, thus allowing him to buy the shotgun.
As a member of the Reserve, Alexis had run-ins with authority, including instances of insubordination and unauthorized absences. Nevertheless, the Navy gave him an honorable discharge and he passed the background check for his information technology job with the contractor.
There were other problems, including multiple arrests for offenses including shooting a bullet through his downstairs neighbor’s apartment in Fort Worth, shooting out the tires of a Honda Accord in Seattle and damaging furniture at a nightclub in DeKalb County, Ga.
He was, in other words, a walking alarm bell. There were multiple opportunities to have identified him as someone who shouldn’t have access to military bases and who shouldn’t have been able to easily purchase a shotgun, even in Virginia.
These are areas that bear close investigation, and at least one is already in the offing in the Senate, where the committee with oversight over the District of Columbia and federal employees may examine the quality of background checks that federal agencies and government contractors conduct on job applicants.
There also needs to be an examination of why Alexis wasn’t identified as mentally ill, which would have prevented him from legally purchasing the shotgun. That he could buy the weapon documents a gaping hole in the system and underscores, once again, the need for effective background checks of gun buyers.
As it stands, this looks like a tragedy that didn’t need to happen, and that makes these deaths especially hard to bear.