Why are the mentally ill allowed to buy guns?

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the handgun ban in the nation’s capital in 2008, Representative Gabrielle Giffords applauded the ruling, calling gun ownership “an Arizona tradition.” That she had co-signed a congressional amicus brief against the ban came as no surprise: she has always been pro-gun, and she represents a state with a history of proud gun ownership and lax gun laws.

So there is at least a touch of irony to the fact that her name is being invoked, following her attempted assassination on Saturday, in calls for tighter gun control. Paul Helmke, head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, offered prayers for Giffords and decried “easy access to high-powered guns.” New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy called the shooting “an illustration of why we must all work together to fight gun violence in America and keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of the wrong people.” (See one survivor’s account of the Tucson massacre.)

Gun-rights supporters see a different moral to the shooting. “It shows more than ever why people need to have the tools of defense,” says Charles Heller, founder of the Arizona Citizens Defense League. As for additional gun-control laws, Heller says, “It doesn’t need to be any more illegal than it already is to shoot a Congresswoman in the head.”

The real question in Tucson, though, is why the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, was allowed to buy the murder weapon in the first place. Beyond the clearly delusional nature of online videos ascribed to him, Loughner was suspended last year from Pima Community College apparently because of mental problems. According to the college, he was told he could return only if he obtained “a mental health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.” The Army also denied Loughner’s application for unspecified reasons. It’s unclear what other organizations or agencies might have been aware of Loughner’s dangerous mental state. Still, he passed a background check, and late last year legally bought the 9-mm Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun allegedly used in the shootings. (Read “What Motivated Giffords’ Shooter?”)

As far back as the Gun Control Act of 1968, there have been federal laws against selling weapons to mentally ill individuals. But the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, in which the shooter Cho Seung-Hui was able to pass two federal gun background checks even after a state court ruled that he was dangerously mentally ill, highlighted the need for better record-keeping and interagency communication to enforce those laws. (More than 30 people died in the incident.) Saying that unstable individuals are disqualified from buying firearms is meaningless if the national background-check system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has no record of their illness. That’s why the Brady organization was proud to announce on Friday, just a day before the Tucson shootings, that the number of records of mental illness in the NICS database had more than doubled since Virginia Tech, to more than 1 million records.

But there’s a problem with that: there should be more than 2 million records in that database, if all the states cooperated fully. According to the Brady organization’s records, Arizona was not even the worst offender – at least the state ramped up its reporting somewhat in the wake of Virginia Tech. But still, Arizona’s own estimate is that the state has 121,700 records of disqualifying mental illness that should go into the NICS database. From the beginning of 2008 to October 2010, however, it submitted only 4,465 records. Worse than Arizona were states like Louisiana, which submitted only one record during that time frame, and Nebraska and Pennsylvania, which didn’t submit any. (Did violent rhetoric contribute to the Giffords attack?)

The battle over gun control is not often fought in the bureaucracy, however. It’s fought in the public square. Saturday’s shooting comes after several years of increasingly high-profile appearances by armed Second Amendment supporters at political events. In August 2009, at the height of the health care reform furor, a man showed up at a speech President Obama gave to veterans in Phoenix with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle slung around his shoulder. That same month, a protester outside an Obama town-hall meeting in New Hampshire wore a handgun strapped to his leg and carried a sign that said, “It’s time to water the tree of liberty,” a reference to Thomas Jefferson, who suggested that particular tree should be watered with blood.

In the end, however, what those protesters demonstrated – safely, as it turned out – was that they could bring properly licensed weapons to political events without endangering the public. Gun-control advocates may see the Tea Party protesters as the face of provocation, but it’s the quiet, grim paranoiacs like Loughner who represent the real danger.

Loughner, according to eyewitnesses, hid his weapon until the moment before he opened fire. But his mental illness had been on display for many to see in the weeks and months before the shooting. So Giffords’ gun politics are not relevant at the moment, nor are the larger questions of liberty or societal violence. The most pressing questions now: Who else knew of Loughner’s mental illness? What obligations did his college have, and which ones did they fulfill, to report Loughner to other agencies? Most of all: Why is Arizona (along with other states) so far behind in reporting disqualifying mental illness to the federal background-check system? If there is anything that both sides should be able to agree on, it’s that unstable individuals should not have access to any kind of weapon, much less the so-called fourth-generation semiautomatic Glock 19 that Loughner bought. This time, the price for bureaucratic torpor was too high.

Courtesy of Time Magazine

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Posted by on January 10, 2011. Filed under Commentary,Political,Social Issues. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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8 Responses to Why are the mentally ill allowed to buy guns?

  1. Red Sky1814

    January 10, 2011 at 11:16 am

    I am also a proponent of gun control, and this case supports the evidence that there is no “real” background check. People of all walks of life and mental persuasion can buy guns at will, especially in gun nut states like Arizona. What a sad indictment on society and a tragic irony given Mrs. Giffords propensity to support bills that opposed any form of gun control.

  2. Dusty

    January 10, 2011 at 11:58 am

    As a former resident of AZ, I can tell you that it is unnerving to stand next to someone in a line that is wearing a holster that contains a firearm or to work at a Circle-K (like a 7-11 here in Cali) and stand there processing a purchase for an individual that is wearing a huge huge handgun on his side and he looks batsh*t crazy and he’s mumbling to himself. AZ’s law allows for open carrying of a weapon, so technically the shooter broke the law when he left his parents house with his concealed weapon.

    How many other Arizonians do the same thing every day? It’s not a big leap from open carry to concealed carrying of a handgun.

    As to the problem of mentally ill people having the ability to purchase a firearm, you have laid out the problem very well Mike. It’s the states that refuse to cooperate with the federal laws that put us all at risk.

    Since the shooter in AZ was never a ‘documented/adjudicated’ nutjob, he passed all the checks and balances to purchase his glock and that huge clip that held so many bullets. There are probably millions of people just like him that own guns that they ‘purchased legally’. I believe you have to have been judged mentally unstable by a court of law in order for your name to go into the registry of individuals that can not purchase weapons.

    So, for me it goes back to the original question..people owning large caliber weapons who’s only use is to kill other people.

    The NRA will argue that it’s a rights question and that everyone has the ‘right’ to protect themselves.

    When does the right to be safe from nutjobs purchasing,carrying and ultimately using guns kick in? Who’s rights are more important?

    • A Michael J. Scott

      January 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      I think anyone who wants a handgun should be required to take a psychological fitness exam such as the MMPI. Once they successfully complete the exam with a “low risk” designation they should then be required to take a 2 week training course on the safe handling and use of firearms. Naturally a criminal history check should be conducted prior to the above. Now no one’s “rights” have been trampled on. They can still acquire a weapon but they have to demonstrate that they pose a minimal threat to themselves or society.

  3. jackie

    January 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    the gun shows should be abolished.

    • A Michael J. Scott

      January 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      I agree Jackie. Many of these nutters get their weapons at these “shows.” There are few if any legal requirements for purchase.

    • Krell

      January 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm

      I went to a couple of those gun shows to look for some civil war memorabilia as a gift. We have some of the biggest gun shows here ….it seems about every other weekend.

      Let me tell, those places are scary!!

      Guns everywhere…wall to wall with thousands of every variety, kits to convert semi-auto to fully-auto guns, thermite, neo-nazi crap, survivalist and end of times booths handing out pamphlets.

      If you got the money, you could purchase and drive home with just about anything you can think of, quicker than drinking a can of soda.

      Seriously….it looked like about 20 percent of the people walking around shouldn’t be allowed with anything sharper than a crayon, much less a Glock.

      • A Michael J. Scott

        January 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm

        I agree Krell, but if given crayons most of these fools wouldn’t be able to stay within the lines.

        I also went to a gun show a couple of years ago, more out of curiosity than anything else, and it was just as you describe. Grinning idiots everywhere…..

        • John Myste

          January 12, 2011 at 1:08 am

          OK, you only have anecdotal evidence of the grinning idiots. I have it to. The grinning idiots have it. We all do. I am not saying that those primarily in love with guns are backward inbred hicks. I am not saying they aren’t either, though.

          “but if given crayons most of these fools wouldn’t be able to stay within the lines.”

          LOL LOL