Littwin: How mentally ill do you have to be in America not to have access to guns?

The more we learn about mass shooter Matthew Riehl, the clearer it becomes that he had very serious mental health issues that were well known to police officials in both Wyoming and Colorado.

What’s not at all clear is how someone who had these well-documented issues — someone, for example, who had been placed on a mental-health hold in a Wyoming VA facility as recently as 2014 — had access to the kind of firepower that left Douglas County deputy Zach Parrish dead and four other officers and two civilians wounded.

Was he placed in the federal background-check system?

If not, why not? If so, did he buy his guns after being placed in the system? In Riehl’s bizarre live-stream of the time leading up to the confrontation, he said he had bought 1,000 rounds of ammunition from Walmart. Riehl, a lawyer, interestingly added that the purchase was legal.

Was it legal? Or maybe a better question would be, how could it have been legal?

When someone tells you that mass shootings are a mental-health problem — as the president did after the Texas church shooting, in which he said it wasn’t a “guns situation” but a “very deranged individual” situation — we can’t let the discussion stop there. The situation that we keep returning to is that intersection where disturbed individuals, like Riehl, have access to guns and, in this case, are able to fire well over 100 rounds at police.

And the question is what to do about it. Clearly we don’t do enough. And even when we make the effort, it’s often not enough. In the Texas shooting, the killer had been courtmartialed for domestic violence by the Air Force, which should have put him on the register that would have prevented him from legally buying a gun. Except that Air Force officials failed to make sure that happened.

Congress had passed a law after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting to prevent those who are mentally ill from buying guns and more clearly defining which records must be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The House passed a bill last year that would reinforce the law, but the Senate has yet to take it up, and it’s unclear whether it will.

And when I talked to Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director at the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence, she said that Wyoming was one of a very few states that does not require reporting. It’s possible, she said, that the VA relied on state authorities and Riehl was never put on the list. And as for ammunition, while it is illegal to buy ammo if you’re on the list, the seller is not required to check.

In the best case, the list itself would be just a first step, but we know Congress isn’t interested in doing more, and, of course, the NRA is interested in Congress doing even less. Colorado, to its credit, is doing something, creating mobile crisis teams with mental-health professionals going out on calls with police.

But that still leaves us with Riehl and his mental issues and the more than 100 rounds that he fired.

Here’s what we’ve learned about Riehl from various news reports.

That Rield’s mother said he suffered from PTSD following a 2009 tour in Iraq and that he sent her emails calling her a “tranny prostitute.” That his brother said he was bipolar and had recently had a “manic breakdown” and that the family had been reaching out to law enforcement for help.

That in 2014, Riehl had walked away from a VA hospital in Wyoming where he was being treated for what was called a psychotic episode. That he was recaptured and placed on a 72-hour mental-health hold.

That he had written harassing emails and social media posts about professors at the University of Wyoming Law School, from which he had graduated. That the University of Wyoming police had investigated the harassment but said that Wyoming law didn’t allow Riehl to be held for psychiatric evaluation without a direct threat and that Riehl’s threats had skirted the edge of being direct.

That, while in Wyoming, he had posted on Facebook a picture with a caption saying “shot that motherfucker dead on the streets of Laramie” and then another including a map of the area around a Texas church where 26 people were killed.

That the faculty had been warned about Riehl. That the Laramie police, who had been informed of the threats, had kept him under watch. And that the Laramie police, upon learning that Riehl had moved to Lone Tree, called police there to warn them of Riehl’s behavior six weeks before he killed Parrish.

That Riehl, after a traffic stop, began harassing Lone Tree police with emails and with posts on social media, calling a deputy a “pimp” and the sheriff a “clown.” That Riehl’s issues were well known to Colorado law enforcement “across the area.”

That, as Douglas County sheriff Sheriff Tony Spurlock said at a memorial for Parrish, he “went to the call to help someone who killed him. He went there to help that guy … a guy who was troubled. And Zack knew that.”

Parrish and the other deputies knew Riehl was troubled. They knew he had guns. And they put their lives at risk. And, according to the Gun Violence Archive, they would become victims of the last of 345 mass shootings (four or more injured) in America in 2017.

And if you think we don’t need to do more, if you think that gun violence in America is acceptable, if you think it’s too soon to talk about guns, just look at the photo from that memorial of Gracie Parrish and the two little fatherless girls on her lap. What we do know is that you can’t look at it without the risk of breaking your heart.


Photo credit: M&R Glasgow, Creative Commons, Flickr 


  1. dunno, but I’m guessing trumpenstein has guns so therefore the answer to your q is : the bar is set pretty low

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