Can We Keep Guns Out of the Hands of the Mentally Ill?

Glenn Reynolds points us to this thoughtful post by The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg that takes up the sensitive issue of the mentally ill and their access to guns:


We must find a way to make it more difficult for the non-adjudicated mentally ill to come into possession of weapons. This is crucially important, but very difficult, because it would require the cooperation of the medical community — of psychiatrists, therapists, school counselors and the like — and the privacy issues (among other issues) are enormous. But: It has to be made more difficult for sociopaths, psychopaths and the otherwise violently mentally-ill (who, in total, make up a small portion of the mentally ill population) to buy weapons.

One can immediately see the problems. There are privacy issues to consider, as well as trying to define “mentally ill.” John Grohol explains:

I don’t believe Obama was talking about anyone who’s ever had a mental disorder diagnosis — that would include over 25 percent of the population.

I think he meant to say those who fall under the Gun Control Act of 1968 — specifically people who have been involuntarily committed, found by a court to be incompetent or dangerous, or those who’ve already committed a crime but were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

According to Gostin & Record (2011), recent Supreme Court rulings generally push states to “regulate dangerous persons rather than dangerous firearms” but that existing gun restrictions pertaining to individuals with mental illnesses are ineffective.


They are ineffective because the states are not cooperating in sending the names of those who should be denied the opportunity to purchase firearms under the 1968 statute:

A federal database with the names of mentally ill people barred from buying guns still lacks millions of records it needs to be effective. A new report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns points to gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The problem is that 14 years after NICS was put in place, states still aren’t submitting all the required mental health records.

“I think that those states are doing a disservice to their citizens,” says Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. “They’re not doing what they can to protect public safety and to keep firearms out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.”

We have to find a way to stop those whose symptoms have already presented themselves and shown an individual to be unfit to own a firearm due to mental incapacity. Several recent mass killings involved a shooter who had been, or was under professional care at the time of his crime. But mental health professionals don’t look at the issue of gun ownership for their patients unless it is in the context of whether they can determine if an individual would be a danger to himself or society. Would the Aurora, CO shooter James Holmes have been foiled if his therapist had erred on the side of caution and put his name in the federal database? We will never know.


Another problem not easily addressed is our attitude toward mental illness. There is still a stigma attached to being diagnosed and this discourages some individuals and families who might otherwise seek help before a tragedy occurs. Educating society about the disease of mental illness being something that could happen to anyone is an ongoing effort, and despite making progress over the previous couple of decades, there is still a long way to go.

If there is any reform that needs to happen as a result of this latest tragedy, it is in the level of awareness and perhaps a change in procedure for placing seriously ill patients in the database that would deny them the right to purchase firearms. This won’t deny them access to firearms — it appears the shooter in Connecticut got the guns from his mother — but it might prevent a future mass killing.

And stopping one madman from killing would be worth the effort.

Related: ‘Deinstitutionalization’: Mass Murder and Untreated Madness


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