Opinion: Gun violence, when will we ever learn?

A Concord police officer walks outside the New Hampshire Hospital grounds after a shooting at the facility on Friday afternoon, Nov. 17.

A Concord police officer walks outside the New Hampshire Hospital grounds after a shooting at the facility on Friday afternoon, Nov. 17. Monitor file

By LEONARD KORN

Published: 12-06-2023 6:00 AM

Leonard Korn is a former president of both the New Hampshire Medical Society and the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society and chair of the New Hampshire Medical Society Subcommittee on Violence as a Public Health Issue.

Pete Seeger’s refrain “When will we ever learn?” keeps reverberating in my mind these days, as more gun violence fills our airwaves. A horrific example of gun violence came to our capital city, to the lobby of the so-called “secure” psychiatric facility of New Hampshire Hospital on November 17.

John Madore, the gun-toting perpetrator, was of course familiar with the lobby of NHH, as he had been committed to that hospital on at least two occasions. This tragedy comes only weeks after the mass shooting close by in Lewiston, Maine where 18 people died and 13 were seriously injured. That shooter, Robert Card, similarly had a history of severe mental illness, psychiatric hospitalization, and known violent tendencies, but unfortunately, also access to guns.

So what have we learned about Mr. Madore so far? We’ve learned that he suffered from severe mental illness. We’ve also learned that two hospitalizations at New Hampshire Hospital after civil commitments because of threats or danger of violence did not lead to adequate follow-up psychiatric treatment so that the danger of violence might have been prevented. We don’t know yet, but it is probably true that he legally purchased the 9mm pistol and ammunition he used to kill Chief Haas in the hospital lobby, as well as the AR-15 that was found in the rental truck that he had left running outside. I’ll explain later why it was likely possible that Madore and Card could legally purchase firearms despite their significant psychiatric and violent histories.

Madore had a prior history of violence. He faced assault charges in January 2016 when he attempted to strangle a woman. In that incident, when police attempted to arrest him, he locked himself in a room with firearms, telling the police the “situation was going to end badly.” Earlier, in 2014, Madore had a run-in with state police during a traffic stop in New London where he was charged with having an unlicensed firearm and resisting arrest.

There are two issues that I want to highlight in this story of violence. The first issue is the continued poor funding of mental health care in our country so that we continue to have horrible examples of known persons with severe mental illness falling through the cracks or chasms in our mental health care systems. Simply stated, we can’t expect to reduce the potential violence of mentally ill persons if we don’t adequately fund the mental health systems that such persons rely on for their treatment.

The second issue is the easy access to guns. Laws that address gun violence have shown that they reduce gun violence. We can’t expect to eliminate all gun violence, but we know we can curtail gun violence with appropriate laws and rules. As the tragedies outlined above so dramatically illuminate, we can’t expect the potential violence of severely mentally ill persons to be curtailed if we continue to allow easy access to guns for those persons. So why do we allow persons committed to psychiatric hospitals in New Hampshire to legally purchase guns when they are known to have severe mental illness and have been judged to be potentially violent in our courts?

When the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was set up in 1993 (the Brady Act) to strengthen firearm regulations, it recommended that states inform the system of the names of persons who were committed to state hospital systems because of potential for violence due to their mental illness. However, many states, including New Hampshire, refuse to share that information with the FBI’s NICS. The state of Maine passed a law in 2013 (responding to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012) to require Maine to provide that data to NICS, but the state of New Hampshire has refused to close that loophole.

The New Hampshire Medical Society, concerned by rising gun violence as well, passed numerous gun violence policies in March 2014 and March 2018, including a provision to have the names of committed patients sent to NICS. Unfortunately, the New Hampshire Legislature and Governor Sununu have been more responsive to Second Amendment enthusiasts than public safety, and over the last several years have made New Hampshire gun laws even more permissive.

Presumably, in Madore’s case, he was most likely able to legally purchase guns because of the above “loopholes” of New Hampshire not sending his name and information to NICS because of his mental commitment but also because his cases of violence were dismissed due to his apparent incompetence to stand trial. In Card’s case, in Maine, he was admitted voluntarily (not committed) to a psychiatric facility in a different state (New York) and his obvious potential danger was just not adequately pursued and his ability to purchase guns was not appropriately curtailed.

Maybe after experiencing the killing of a police officer at New Hampshire Hospital it would be reasonable to suggest changing our state motto from “Live Free or Die” to “Live Free and Die.” Maybe that motto would also fit with Maine’s generally permissive gun laws.

When, indeed, will we ever learn?