The White House has been briefed on a proposal to develop a way to identify early signs of changes in people with mental illness that could lead to violent behavior.
Supporters see the plan as a way President Donald Trump could move the ball forward on gun control following recent mass shootings as efforts seem to be flagging to impose harsher restrictions like background checks on gun purchases.
The proposal is part a larger initiative to establish a new agency called the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency or HARPA, which would sit inside the Health and Human Services Department. Its director would be appointed by the president and the agency would have a separate budget, according to three sources with knowledge of conversations around the plan.
HARPA would be modeled on DARPA, the highly successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that serves as the research arm of the Pentagon and collaborates with other federal agencies, the private sector and academia.
The concept was advanced by the Suzanne Wright Foundation, and was first discussed by officials on the Domestic Policy Council and senior White House staffers in June 2017. But the idea has gained momentum in the wake of the latest mass shootings that killed 31 people in one weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
The Suzanne Wright Foundation re-approached the administration last week, and proposed that HARPA include a “Safe Home” — “Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes” — project. Officials discussed the proposal at the White House last week, said two people familiar with the discussions.
The attempt to use volunteer data to identify “neurobehavioral signs” of “someone headed toward a violent explosive act” would be a four-year project costing an estimated $40 to $60 million, according to Dr. Geoffrey Ling, the lead scientific adviser on HARPA and a founding director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.
“Everybody would be a volunteer,” Ling said in an interview. “We’re not inventing new science here. We’re analyzing it so we can develop new approaches.”
“This is going to have to be done using scientific rigor.”
But there are plenty of researchers and mental health experts who believe that mental health and gun violence aren’t necessarily linked.
Mental illness can sometimes be a factor in such violent acts, experts say, but it is rarely a predictor — most studies show that no more than a quarter of mass shooters have a diagnosed mental illness. More commonly shared attributes of mass shooters include a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms.
In the immediate aftermath of Dayton and El Paso, Trump said he might support background checks for all gun purchases and “red flag” laws to deny guns to those deemed a hazard to themselves or others. But Trump on Tuesday called universal background checks off the table in a conversation with the head of the National Rifle Association, though he later denied saying that.
The president has said he thinks mentally ill people are primarily responsible for the spate of mass shootings in the United States. And this proposal is likely to be welcomed by Republicans and gun rights activists who have argued the same thing.
“We’re looking at the whole gun situation,” Trump said last week. “I do want people to remember the words ‘mental illness.’ These people are mentally ill … I think we have to start building institutions again because, you know, if you look at the ’60s and ’70s, so many of these institutions were closed.”
Trump has reacted “very positively” to the HARPA proposal, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions and has been “sold on the concept.” But it’s unclear whether the president has reviewed the new “Safe Home” component of the proposal and creating an entire agency would be a huge lift in Congress.
“Every time this has been brought up inside the White House — even up to the presidential level, it’s been very well-received,” a source familiar with discussions said. “HARPA is the health-care equivalent of DARPA and it’s a great legacy project for the president, one he is uniquely positioned to get done.”
That source said that Trump could benefit in a variety of ways from getting behind a project like HARPA right now.
“There is no doubt that addressing this issue helps the president deal with two issues he has yet to find real success on: one is the health-care front and one is on the gun-violence front,” the source added.
Trump has a close personal relationship with Bob Wright, who founded the Suzanne Wright Foundation after his wife passed away from pancreatic cancer. Wright is the former chair of NBC and was in that job while Trump headlined “The Apprentice.”
Wright sees Ivanka Trump as the most effective champion of the proposal and has previously briefed her on HARPA himself, Wright told us.
“It would be perfect for her to do it — we need someone with some horsepower — someone like her driving it … It could get done,” said one official familiar with the conversations. “We’d be able to put every resource of federal government, from the highest levels of the scientific community to say: ‘This is how people with these problems should be treated and have limited access to firearms.'”
The HARPA proposal was initially pitched as a project to improve the mortality rate of pancreatic cancer through innovative research to better detect and cure diseases. Despite internal support over the past two years, the model ran into what was described as “institutional barriers to progress,” according to a source familiar with the conversations.
“He’s very achievement oriented and I think all presidents have difficulties with science,” Wright said in an interview. “I think their political advisers say, ‘No that’s not a game for you,’ so they sort of back off a bit.”
He added: “But the president has a real opportunity here to leave a legacy in health care.”
The idea is for the agency to develop a “sensor suite” using advanced artificial intelligence to try and identify changes in mental status that could make an individual more prone to violent behavior. The research would ultimately be opened to the public.
HARPA would develop “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence,” says a copy of the proposal. “A multi-modality solution, along with real-time data analytics, is needed to achieve such an accurate diagnosis.”
The document goes on to list a number of widely used technologies it suggests could be employed to help collect data, including Apple Watches; Fitbits; Amazon Echo and Google Home. The document also mentions “powerful tools” collected by health-care providers like fMRIs, tractography and image analysis.
“Advanced analytical tools based on artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly improving and must be applied to the data,” states the document.
Those familiar with the project stressed it would not collect sensitive health data about individuals without their permission. The government is simply trying to identify risk factors when it comes to mental health that could indicate violent behavior, they said.
“Privacy must be safeguarded. Profiling must be avoided. Data protection capabilities will be the cornerstone of this effort.”
Proponents of the plan argue that an agency like HARPA, which applies technology being used in other fields to develop medical breakthroughs, is long overdue.
“DARPA is a brilliant model that works. They have developed the most transformational capabilities in the world for national security,” said Liz Feld, the president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation, saying those techniques had yet to be applied to health care. “We’re not leveraging the tools and technologies available to us to improve and save lives.”