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