A debate on guns and mental health

As mass shootings by men with histories of mental problems continue to plague our com­munities, it appears the U.S. Senate is ready to debate measures that would help keep guns out of the hands of people legally deemed "men­tally defective."

In July, John Russell Hous­er, a man with a long history of mental problems, whose family had unsuccessfully sought help from the courts, opened fire in a movie the­ater in Lafayette, La., kill­ing two and wounding nine. Because information about his mental problems had not been re­ported to the FBI’s N a t i o n a l I n s t a n t C r i m i n a l Background Check Sys­tem (NICS), he was sold a gun by an Ala­bama gun dealer.

Houser is just the latest in a long line of people with long histories of mental health problems gunning down innocents.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex­as, the second most powerful Republican senator, has in­troduced a bill that is backed by the National Rifle Associ­ation, which would, accord­ing to The Associated Press, "reward states for sending more information about residents with serious men­tal problems to the federal background check system for firearms purchasers."

Cornyn’s bill also has the backing of the National Al­liance on Mental Illness, which is vital. Any new law will need to balance public safety with the civil rights of those who have experienced mental illness.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced a more comprehensive bill that would provide extra federal money to states that send a broad range of information about the mentally ill, vio­lent criminals and domestic abusers. The NRA is not sup­porting Schumer’s bill.

Schumer’s bill would ad­dress circumstances like those surrounding Dylann Roof, who has been charged with killing nine people in a black church in Charleston, S.C. Roof’s arrest for ille­gal drug possession should have prevented him from purchasing a gun, but that information did not come up when a dealer ran a back­ground check on him.

Sen. Cornyn says "Gaps in existing law or inadequate resources prevent our com­munities from taking proac­tive steps to prevent them from becoming violent."

By law, gun dealers can­not sell weapons to people if they have been adjudicated as having mental problems. However, in many cases and for varied reasons, that information is often not re­ported to the FBI for inclu­sion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Some states, including New Hampshire, send virtu­ally no men­tal health information to the NICS.

Accord­ing to the Law Cen­ter to Pre­vent Gun Violence, "There is no law in New Hampshire requir­ing the reporting of mental health information to NICS. New Hampshire law al­lows for the release of con­fidential patient information when provided for ‘by the need to protect the welfare of the individual or the pub­lic interest.’ However, as of October 2011, New Hamp­shire had submitted only two mental health records to the NICS Index."

The background check system is only as effective as the information it contains. If, as a society, we agree with the law that prevents gun sales to people legally ruled "mentally defective," we need the background check database to be far more com­prehensive.

Some gun control orga­nizations say Cornyn’s bill is misleading and will actu­ally make it easier for people with mental problems to buy guns because it would require court action before barring gun purchases by veterans declared incompe­tent by the Veterans Affairs Office. We take these con­cerns seriously and antici­pate they will be fully debat­ed as the bill moves through the Senate.

The good news is that for the first time since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre the Senate ap­pears willing to have a ratio­nal conversation about the gun violence that is ripping apart so many communities in America.

Portsmouth Herald