While details are still emerging about Aaron Alexis, the man responsible for killing 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, this much is already clear. This man never should have had a security clearance that allowed him to enter the Yard. And he never should have been permitted to buy a gun.
This is a man with a history of repeated infractions as a Navy reservist and troubling run-ins with authorities. In one such episode, just last month, Alexis called police in Newport, R.I., to tell them he was being followed by three people whom he alleged had been sent to follow him by an individual he had argued with at a Virginia airport. According to the police report, Alexis complained that his followers were using a "microwave machine" to communicate with him through the walls, floor and ceiling.
A sure sign of mental illness? Yes. Alexis also told police he was a Navy contractor.
To their credit, the Newport police recognized that the Navy needed to know that one of its contractors was seriously unstable, and so they sent over a copy of his comments to the base police at the Navy facility in Newport.
It is not clear what, if anything, happened next. Twice in August Alexis sought treatment at VA hospitals, complaining that he could not sleep. Did doctors at that facility have access to the information provided to the base police in Newport? It seems they did not. He kept his security clearance. He continued to service Navy computers.
"The system didn't pick up the red flags because the red flags in this case had not been fed into the system," a Pentagon official told reporters. "Perhaps we need to look at the 'filters'" that should be part of the files, the official said.
How does a man who had been investigated by police departments in Seattle and Fort Worth for shooting a gun in anger, who was hearing voices in Rhode Island, who twice sought treatment from the VA, who had told his neighbors that he suffered from PTSD and had gone as long as three days without sleep manage to get and hold onto a security clearance that allowed him access to Navy computers?
To what extent did budget issues — which have led to the outsourcing of security checks to for-profit firms — play a role?
And equally important, how is it that such a man could go into a gun store in Virginia and buy a shotgun?
Yes, we all know the official answers. He hadn't been committed or arrested. If that is the bar, as it appears to be, then the bar is plainly too low.
Ironically, the Alexis case also teaches that gun control laws can work. Alexis reportedly tried to buy an assault weapon, but under Virginia law, he was not allowed to purchase one because he was not a Virginia resident.
As horrific as the violence was at the Navy Yard, it could have been so much worse. Twelve people are dead at the hands of a man who never should have been allowed on the base. But many more are alive today because even the most limited forms of gun control save lives.
The NRA likes to say that guns don't kill; people kill. True enough. And all the more reason to ensure that mentally disturbed, angry and troubled people like Alexis are not able to walk into a gun store and purchase firearms. We may not have the facilities to treat every Aaron Alexis out there, but at the very least, we should do everything possible to prevent them from buying guns.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)