In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, there was the usual debate between supporters and opponents of gun control. On one thing, though, everyone seemed to be in agreement: Cho Seung-Hui, whom a judge had found a danger to himself, should never have been allowed to buy a gun. But now that legislation has been introduced in Congress to keep deranged people from getting firearms, we find not quite everyone is on board.
Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, Cho was legally barred from gun possession. The law disqualifies people in several categories, including anyone convicted of a felony or of domestic violence, anyone in the country illegally, anyone dishonorably discharged from the military, and anyone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution."
Cho fit the last category. But because he was never committed, the state didn’t include his name on the list it submitted for the federal database used to check the eligibility of gun buyers. This week, the governor of Virginia signed legislation to change the state’s reporting process.
Better still, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill to require states to provide the FBI with all the records needed for background checks, including those dealing with mental health adjudications. It also provides funds to the states to upgrade their reporting systems.
McCarthy is a fervent supporter of stricter gun laws who has often clashed with the National Rifle Association. So how did the NRA react? Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the organization supports measures to assure that mental health records get into the federal database. "Our position on this is crystal clear: If you are adjudicated by a court to be mentally defective, suicidal, a danger to yourself or to others, you should be prohibited from buying a firearm," he told Newsweek.
You might think that if you can persuade the NRA to endorse a restriction on gun ownership, you can persuade anyone. But the McCarthy bill drew fierce opposition from another group: those claiming to advocate for the mentally ill.
"It is unconscionable to restrict people’s civil rights because they have a medical illness," said Nada Stotland, vice president of the American Psychiatric Association (though APA says it doesn’t take a position). David Shern, president of Mental Health America, denounced the measure as "an extremely ill-informed, regressive social policy that further stigmatizes people and will do nothing to reduce gun violence." The critics say the ban discriminates against people with mental illness, based on the erroneous assumption that they are more violent than other people.
But it’s fair to assume that people who have been evaluated and ruled by a court to be dangerous are indeed more dangerous than those who have not. And it’s ridiculous to claim that barring them from getting guns punishes them for having a medical illness.
The point, keep in mind, is to exclude anyone who’s dangerous, regardless of whether they’re sick or well, sane or not. The categories in the law are a reasonable attempt to define the sort of people who should not be trusted with lethal firepower. Those Americans who merely suffer from mental illness, whether it’s depression or a phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, are free to buy guns — unless a court has ruled them dangerous or they’ve been committed to a psychiatric facility.
Shern warned CQ Weekly that the bill will discourage people from seeking treatment. But no one is going to lose his shooting privileges for going to a psychiatrist. Most people needing help are not dangerous. Only a tiny minority of patients falls under the ban, and among the factors that might keep them from requesting help, losing their gun rights is probably low on the list.
Perhaps some people will indeed go without treatment if the law is enforced. And perhaps some people will be unfairly deprived of firearms when they are actually harmless. But those criticisms prove only that no policy is perfect. Some minor side effects are a small price to pay for reducing the threat posed by the likes of Cho Seung-Hui.
The obvious alternative to upgrading enforcement of the existing law is to repeal it and let people known to suffer from dangerous mental illnesses enjoy free access to firearms. And that, pardon the expression, would be lunacy.