Washington Navy Yard shooting raises complex questions about gun violence


On 16 September, a 34-year-old former naval reservist named Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at Washington, DC’s Navy Yard, the ceremonial and administrative centre of the US Navy. Alexis was able to clear security using his valid military credentials, which he had been issued through his job as a military subcontractor working as an IT specialist inside the building.

In the days since the shooting, Alexis’s criminal record and history of mental illness have been revealed. Neither of these was reflected in the background check provided to the Navy as part of the security clearance process when he joined the Navy in 2008 and when he began to work in the Navy Yard in 2011.

Washington Navy Yard

Alexis had been treated once for psychological issues at a Veterans Affairs Hospital. In early August, he called police to report that he was hearing voices and people were following him who were sending vibrations into his body. According to the police report, however, he denied suffering from any mental illness.

Although honorably discharged from the Navy in 2011, Alexis had a history of misconduct during his time in the military. In 2004, he was arrested for a gun-related crime in Seattle; he had shot someone’s tires after an argument. Nonetheless, because he lacked any felony convictions, Alexis was able to legally purchase the shotgun he used to kill his 12 victims.

This latest mass shooting in America is both a national tragedy and a further cause for alarm.

It has been less than year since the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were killed inside an elementary school.

The national reaction to Sandy Hook jumpstarted a flurry of legislative activity to address gun violence. President Obama promised to enact stricter gun control laws that would expand background checks and close existing loopholes. While polls showed public support for such laws at 90%, the Senate was unable to pass the bill because of opposition from the National Rifle Association’s gun lobby and from pro-gun rights senators.

Likewise, when two American citizens attacked the Boston Marathon last April, the entire country rallied for those involved, declaring themselves “Boston Strong.”

In the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, however, there is a noticeable national apathy. Perhaps it is because the Navy Yard is a secure building full of military personnel. Or because Washington, DC has both some of the strictest gun control laws in the country and some of the highest rates of gun violence.

This apathy may be part a growing resignation to America’s mass shooting problem. While presiding over a memorial service for the victims and their families on 22 September at the White House, president Obama said that he “fear[s] there’s a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal.”

Mr Obama also put American exceptionalism into sharp focus when it comes to gun violence. “In the United Kingdom, in Australia, when just a single mass shooting occurred, they understood that there was nothing ordinary about this kind of carnage. They endured great heartbreak, but they also mobilized and they changed, and mass shootings became a great rarity.”

Nonetheless, the president admitted Washington’s futility in dealing with this new national trend. “By now, though, it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington,” he said.

In a television interview that same day, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association and face of the anti-gun control movement, said that Americans should direct their outrage not at a dearth of gun control laws, but instead to “an unprotected naval base,” “a mental health system that is completely broken,” and the American criminal justice system.

While gun control laws certainly couldn’t hurt the effort to stop such senseless and consistent violence, LaPierre touches on the complexity of the gun problem in America.


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