News & Politics

What to Do About Guns and the Mentally Ill

While international terrorism has captured the attention of the media this autumn, the gun violence agenda on the home front is never far below the surface during a presidential election cycle. We are reminded of this with every stump speech by Hillary Clinton and each poorly publicized Democrat debate.

There are the usual calls for bans on so-called “assault weapons” or magazines capable of holding more than two rounds and a stick of gum, along with the ubiquitous demands for more and better background checks. But one of the trendiest talking points being deployed this season is the demand the we do something about all of the crazy people who seem to have guns and occasionally take them out to create mayhem in very public — and generally gun-free — zones such as schools and churches.

Fair enough. It’s clearly a reasonable goal, since no responsible person wants the criminally insane or dangerously incompetent to be wandering about with a potentially lethal tool like a firearm. So how shall we accomplish this laudable improvement in our shared society?

Ah, there’s the rub. When you ask for specifics, the Democrats and their media allies mostly fall silent. The few who do not seem to fumble around for definitions which could never be crafted into a self-respecting bill that could pass constitutional muster, or they propose sweeping categories which would catch half the nation in their nets. Even when they nibble around the edges we seem to run into trouble. One example of this was when Barack Obama himself pitched the idea of tying gun rights to the status of Social Security recipients. Under such a plan, any person who designated another person to process their forms, cash their checks, or in any other way deal with their account would be defined as being “unable to manage their own affairs” and have their gun rights revoked.

Trust me when I tell you that I’ve met a few elderly recipients in my family who probably shouldn’t have a gun, so this idea isn’t based entirely in fantasy. But by the same token, there are some who simply aren’t that good at managing their own money any more or are getting help from their children and turn over such affairs to them. That doesn’t mean that they might not need to defend themselves from a burglar or simply enjoy plinking the occasional target. Blanket definitions such as the one proposed by the president are a sure path to expensive court challenges where the “accused” will have to prove themselves competent before they are allowed to exercise their constitutional rights. Such an approach turns the idea of freedom on its head.

Other plans, including a few proposed in the wake of the Oregon shooting, seek to create a database of people who have been determined by “professionals” to be mentally unstable. This makes perfect sense if you believe that anyone who has ever sought out any sort of mental health treatment or therapy is automatically dangerous or crazy. This is disconcerting to any supporter of the Second Amendment because the American Psychological Association has been keeping track of these numbers for decades and they report that nearly one half of all American households have at least one member who seeks some sort of mental health treatment each year. I’m not here to claim that Hillary Clinton would like to wipe out all the guns from half the households in America, but I’m also not about to say that she’d mind it very much.

If you want to see what such a government database of the mentally ill looks like in action, we’re not just dealing with hypotheticals here. Look no further than New York State, where the passage of the hilariously named “SAFE Act” in 2013 mandated the creation of just such a list. The claimed intent, as previously implied, was to establish a list of dangerously insane individuals, revoke their gun rights, and remove their weapons in the name of the public weal. But as it was worded, any resident could have their name submitted to this database by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a therapist, or a pharmacist who just had a feeling that the person was off kilter. People began having their names put in for transgressions ranging from telling a therapist they were depressed to being prescribed anti-anxiety medication for a short period of time. By November of 2014 when the New York Times finally managed to get the state government to admit to the existence of the list, it contained more than 34,000 names. The number of guns confiscated in total remains unknown since the governor’s office claims they don’t track such things, but individual reports of confiscation continue to this day.

This is what happens when you write the government a blank check in terms of curtailing your constitutional rights. Given an inch, far too many of them will take a country mile and more. The fact is that we already have a system in place for determining when someone is too unstable or incompetent to possess firearms and it involves having the government adjudicating them through the process of a public hearing. In the course of such an action, the “accused” at least has the chance to make their case and prove their competence if the charges are specious.

What’s lacking in the current system is not a faster way to declare citizens insane, but a functional method of assembling and disseminating the data regarding those who are truly dangerous. In too many cases that’s simply not being done and it allows for holes in the already adequate background check system. If the states can manage to fix that problem, we might be willing to talk about tweaking it a bit in the future.

As with so many subjects when it comes to gun control, the remedy to the very real problem of gun violence would be achieved by simply enforcing the laws we currently have and putting smart people in charge of administering the system. But since we can’t seem to manage that, Democrats will continue to conclude that more and “better” laws are needed, ignoring the fact that the worst violent crime rates in the nation remain stubbornly high in the places with the strictest gun laws. As for the crazy people… perhaps we need to examine those seeking elected office a bit more closely before we go chasing down the hoi polloi.