American flags surrounding the Washington Monument fly at half-staff following...

American flags surrounding the Washington Monument fly at half-staff following the deadly shooting Monday at the Washington Navy Yard. (Sept. 17, 2013) Credit: AP

The fact that we cannot do all we'd like to stop every potential tragedy is not an excuse to do nothing. We are living in the wake of the mass shooting of children in Newtown, Conn., and all the massacres stretching through our consciousness before that. Moviegoers in Aurora, Colo.; soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas; a congresswoman in Tucson, Ariz., and high school students in Columbine, Colo. We know there are other heart-rending tragedies in the annals of American carnage, even though the details have faded from memory.

Reeling from all of that, with the public as united in a desire to rein in the madness as it had ever been, we failed utterly. We did nothing.

Now we have another spree, this one in Washington, with 13 people dead, including the shooter, whose story includes mental illness and gun crimes. Aaron Alexis, the killer, reportedly had recently received counseling from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Family members say he heard voices and had anger issues that led to his shooting out vehicle tires of construction workers and firing into a neighbor's apartment.

It is disturbing that Alexis garnered a "secret" clearance from the Department of Defense in 2007 and again this July, and that he was able to work at the Washington Navy Yard. So are reports that he apparently had no trouble legally acquiring a gun.

Mental illness, often but not always diagnosed, is the most common strain in mass murders. Keeping guns away from people who are mentally ill or criminals should be goals we can all agree to focus on. Improving our federal background-check system and changing the law to require such checks even on sales at gun shows and via the Internet should be within our grasp.

Consider the failure of Congress to pass new weapons laws this year: Gun-control advocates knew they would have a tough time getting everything they wanted when the issue came up for debate in April, but thanks to the politics, Americans were left with nothing at all. The pushback from gun groups was so virulent that not even the universal background checks favored by the vast majority of Americans won out. Harsher penalties for gun traffickers failed to pass the Senate, despite the support of the National Rifle Association. Gun control measures never even got debated in the House of Representatives.

Congress passed the NRA-backed National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 to strengthen state reporting of vital information to the federal database for background checks. The purchase of guns by anyone who has "been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution" was banned by the Gun Control Act of 1968. In many states, though, the reporting is still awful (according to studies, New York is one of the best). Some states even have laws against reporting mental illness to the federal government, in some cases because of privacy concerns. But Washington isn't limited to asking nicely when it wants states to comply. States that aren't sending all the needed information should pay the price in reduced federal funding.

There are people who have no legal right to possess a gun, either because they are mentally ill or because they are criminals. Stopping those people from having guns by instituting universal background checks based on comprehensive databases of criminals and mentally ill people should be something we as a nation can unite to achieve.


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