A first step toward rational gun control

Increasing state participation in the NICS would help screen out unlawful gun purchases by mental patients and drug users. Photo: rlt

DOTHAN, AL, January 8, 2013 — You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

Likewise, the best way to resolve big problems is to break them down into smaller parts. Unfortunately, the political left doesn’t seem to understand that and has resumed its hunt for the one-size-fits-all solution to gun violence and mass shootings. People are upset, and political leaders are determined to give them a “silver bullet” that will fix everything.

It never ends, but there are some bright spots on the horizon.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, several US senators asked the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to provide a study on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act, on what states were doing to provide mental health records to the system, and what the Department of Justice might do to improve participation by the states. 

The GAO did a comprehensive analysis of FBI and state-level data on mental health patients and unlawful drug users between 2004 and 2011. The results provide what may be a viable first bite of the gun violence elephant. Briefly, there are over three million people in the US who were involuntarily committed for mental health reasons, yet only about a third of them were reported to NICS by the states.

According to existing federal law, anyone involuntarily detained for mental health evaluation cannot purchase a firearm. There are thus two million mentally unstable people roaming our streets who should not be able to purchase a firearm, but who won’t be stopped if they try.

As of May 2012, 30 states were withholding commitment information for various reasons. Some states simply do not have the technical infrastructure to participate, and in some states there are serious concerns about privacy and rights of mental health patients. The same situation exists with non-convicted unlawful drug users, also prohibited by federal law from purchasing guns. 

Privacy laws vary widely by state. In Alabama a judge can only provide records to the FBI if there is direct testimony by a law enforcement officer that a patient misused a firearm or posed a threat with one. However, judges usually decide on commitment cases using testimony by doctors and family members, not law enforcement personnel. As a result, even if a patient is violent or dangerous, that information is withheld from the FBI database unless a police officer testifies in court.

There are adequate federal gun laws already in place, and improving the NICS would help enforcement with minimal expense. The Justice Department is looking at incentives to help states participate more fully in NICS, including financial programs to help set up technical infrastructure and offset state-level costs. The existing laws are very clear about who can and cannot legally purchase firearms. What we need is a better way to identify the individuals who should not qualify.

This idea is likely to infuriate privacy advocates, but we cannot have it both ways. We can protect the privacy of drug users and mental patients, allowing unbalanced and drug-damaged people to continue to buy firearms and occasionally commit massacres, or we can subordinate their privacy rights to public safety. The GAO report shows clear statistical evidence that in states providing better data, the incidence of denied purchases has increased as well.

The conclusion is that there are significant numbers of mental health patients and unlawful drug users buying guns who shouldn’t be allowed to. The issue of their gun rights is not open for discussion because that is already limted by federal law. It should be noted, however, there are appeals procedures for anyone denied a gun purchase; this is not a one-way street to permanent exclusion.

The mainstream media have been largely devoid of information on this subject. Like politicians, they find it more advantageous to sensationalize the issue and have ceased to consider it their primary duty to help the public make informed decisions. Instead, they opt for stunts like publishing names of legal gun-permit holders.

Recent media misinformation about weapons has been astounding. That includes misuse of the term “assault weapon,” a made-up term used to scare the public into thinking that hunters are all paramilitary survivalists. The AR-15 rifle has become the poster child for the anti-gun lobby more for its military-style looks than for its technical specifications. In reality, it is about the last gun a soldier would want to be stuck with in battle.

Better screening, safety training and education works. Hopefully, all of that will get serious consideration by the three-ring circus task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden. Unfortunately, he is one of the politicians who believe you can, in fact, eat an elephant in one bite. However, he doesn’t seem bothered by indigestion, at least judging by the number of his own words he’s had to swallow over time.

 

Be sure to get The Backstory and more at Rick’s blog http://www.ricktownley.com

 


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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.

 

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