MENTAL ILLNESS: Loophole Allows Some to Purchase Guns
A loophole in gun background checks that fails to turn up mental health histories of people with psychiatric problems has "contributed to the wave of school and workplace shootings of the last decade," the New York Times reports. Although federal gun control law prohibits individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution from purchasing a handgun, the provision has proven difficult to enforce, as most states have statutes barring law enforcement officials from accessing mental health records. The New York Times examined 100 cases, finding that half the shooters were people with a history of serious mental health problems, at least eight had been involuntarily committed and another eight had been voluntarily committed. The article cites the case of Lisa Duy, who purchased a gun in a Utah sporting goods store and two hours later began firing it in a television station. Duy had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had been in several treatment facilities, including a mental hospital after threatening to kill an FBI agent. But the background check run by the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification failed to turn up her mental health history. Duy also omitted such history on her application for the gun. John Huber, the assistant West Valley City attorney who handled an earlier Duy incident, said, "This is a common problem we have, even in an era of all this technology. [Duy] was able to walk around free and buy a gun because of a lack of communication between the mental health system and the criminal justice system."
Protecting Civil Rights
Balancing the privacy rights of the mentally ill and the need for background checks to keep guns out of their reach is tricky. Advocates for the mentally ill point out that few actually commit murder and shootings by the mentally ill "account for only a minute fraction of all homicides." They argue that allowing law enforcement officials access to mental health records infringes on the civil rights of the mentally ill. Michael Faenza, president of the National Mental Health Association, said, "People with mental illness should not be discriminated against in any way. If you did that, you would not reduce the violence, only create more stigma." Others argue that preventing violence by the mentally ill might supersede privacy protection. In the meantime, Utah has enacted a law that gives law enforcement agencies access to mental health information for gun buyer background checks. The agencies cannot use or share the information for any other purpose than gun checks. In Illinois, the state's Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities receives a list of prospective gun buyers each day to check, so law enforcement officials do not have direct access to the records. Connecticut has a similar system, but allows police with a court warrant to seize guns from an individual they believe is a danger to himself or others (Butterfield, 4/11).