College shooting suspect's mom says issue is mental health, not guns

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The mother of the man accused of killing two campus police officers at Bridgewater College in rural Virginia earlier this week spoke to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about her son, and says she “could not prevent” what happened, while pointing the finger at the state’s mental health system.

Cheryl Campbell says her son, 27-year old Alexander Wyatt Campbell, has suffered from mental illness for years, though when she was asked by the paper for specifics, Campbell said she didn’t “even know how to respond to that,” adding that because her son is an adult, her ability to get him help has been limited.

“This is a very hard time for Wyatt and his family and for the families that he has affected,” added Campbell, in tears, her voice quavering. “It is not about gun control. It is not. And I need you as a journalist to get that out there. It is about mental illness and how we have no control over that, the way society is right now. I can’t help my son.”

Campbell did not wish to answer specific questions about her son’s background during the brief interview. Hanover sheriff’s Lt. James Cooper said the department has not responded to any mental health-related calls to Cheryl Campbell’s address or any temporary detention orders involving her son.

I would agree with Campbell that gun control isn’t the issue here, but it remains to be seen if untreated mental illness is to blame. I do know that if Campbell hadn’t been offered a plea deal when he was accused of previous crimes on campus five years ago, he would have been ineligible to legally possess a firearm this week.

At a press conference the night of the shooting, VSP spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are assisting the VSP with the investigation.

The VSP wouldn’t comment on whether Campbell is or was a student at Bridgewater College. Now-removed athletic rosters showed Campbell as having previously been a member of Bridgewater College’s track team, reported by the Daily News-Record.

Geller also refused to comment on whether Campbell had been previously known to campus police at the press conference. Harrisonburg/Rockingham General District Court records show that Campbell was previously charged in 2017 with entering a structure with the intention to commit assault and battery or other crimes. The charge was amended to a misdemeanor of trespassing after having been forbidden. The Daily News-Record reported that the structure was the Kline Campus Center on Bridgewater’s campus.

It could be that the suspect truly is so mentally ill that he can’t differentiate between right and wrong, but it’s also distinctly possible that he’s a POS who knew exactly what he was doing. In fact, even if he’s determined to suffer from some form of mental illness, a psychiatrist could easily find that the illness does not absolve him of his culpability in the crime he’s alleged to have committed. A diagnosis isn’t a “get-out-of-jail” free card, nor should it be.

At the same time, Virginia does have a genuine crisis in terms of mental health services. Over the past several years the shortage of inpatient beds has become increasingly acute, and last summer more than half of the state’s mental health hospitals had to halt admissions because of a shortage of staff as well. The problem is real, but it’s too early to say if it had any real impact on the suspect, especially since there’s no evidence right now of any attempt by his family or law enforcement to have him placed in the state mental health system in recent months.

We’ll be learning more about the suspect and his mental state in the days ahead, but at the moment it looks like the biggest point of failure in preventing this crime was not taking his previous offense more seriously. Giving him the chance to plead down from multiple felonies to misdemeanors not only allowed Campbell to avoid prison time (where he might have actually had access to mental health services), but apparently allowed him to legally acquire the gun that was used to murder two police officers. By all means let’s talk about the failures of Virginia’s mental health system, but those looking to “do something” to prevent crimes like this in the future need to shine a light on the problems in our criminal justice system as well.