OEDEL: Let’s age-target the mayhem menace

December 23, 2012 

When I first heard that an elementary school shooting had occurred, I guessed aloud the shooter’s profile: white male, 18-25.

Adam Lanza, 20, turned out to fit the profile. Lanza joins a sick lineup of similar shooting “stars”: Eric Harris (one of the Columbine shooters, was almost 18), Dylan Klebold (the other Columbine shooter, 18), Seung-Hui Cho (the Virigina Tech shooter, 23), Jared Loughner (the Arizona shooter, 22), James Eagan Holmes (the Colorado theater shooter, 24).

All of them shared other traits too. All had psycho-social problems to the point of being suicidal, pathologically vengeful, or at least dangerously out of control. All wanted grand notoriety. All had people around them who knew there was trouble brewing. All were from well-heeled families and apparently had good medical coverage. All were reportedly skilled video gamers, enough to be desensitized to the implications of pulling a trigger with bodies in the cross-hairs. All had too-easy access to real guns.

We don’t yet know all the details about Lanza as of this writing, but we know enough about the general profile to have a fair sense of what to do in response to President Obama’s appropriate declaration that enough is enough. We do need to do something different.

Rather than indiscriminately impose overbearing restrictions on the rest of society, though, it makes sense to target this particular age cohort. Right now, members of this group gain almost full legal status of adulthood simply by hitting 18. That’s a really bad rule, and I know. My son was sprung from drug rehab high at age 18. Though he re-entered drug rehab voluntarily a year later, he then checked himself out as an “adult” -- and was dead days later from a meth overdose at age 19.

As a desperately concerned parent and lawyer, I proved unable to save him, even though I knew better than anyone that he was in the process of making tragic decisions.

Luckily, my son did not take anyone with him, but I can relate to the parents of the shooters who knew they were dealing with fire, but didn’t have good options in part because troubled kids in that age cohort are treated as adults.

Ironically, Obamacare has extended health coverage for our kids to age 26, but after 18, parents don’t even have access to our covered kids’ health records under federal privacy law, and can’t easily commit them for serious mental health or drug issues.

These kids typically have to go commit a crime before anyone can require them to get help. That’s absurd. Let’s get them help before they commit crimes and mess with death.

Here are five simple legal changes that could get to the core of the problem, and really help prevent the next instance of shooter mayhem:

1. Change the presumptive age of majority from 18 to 21, like the Mississippi law that works well. That will empower parents more meaningfully to oversee kids under their care.

2. Change federal privacy rules so that parents paying for children’s health coverage have access to their health records, and change health care presumptions so that parents of covered children must be included in decisions about covered treatment.

3. As part of Obamacare, set up special mental health and behavioral problem centers specifically for the 18-25 cohort, including residential centers and adopt relaxed rules empowering parents to enlist independent authorities in requiring our most troubled young people to participate in such programs even if they’ve not yet committed a crime.

4. Require stringent waiting periods and training requirements for anyone under 26 wanting to own firearms and ammunition of any type.

5. Ban sales to minors of shooter-style video games that train for human slaughter.

It’s time to act, but let’s act with measured, thoughtful and constitutional responses to the special threat we face from some of our troubled young adults.

David Oedel is a professor of constitutional law at Mercer University Law School. His oldest son died from a drug overdose in 2005.

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