Strengthen background checks for gun purchases

Thursday January 31, 2013

Following the murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which was meant to strengthen the federal database used for background checks of those wishing to purchase firearms from a licensed dealer.

Most specifically, the act targeted the reporting by states of people with mental illnesses who have been deemed unfit to possess firearms.

In the case of Virginia Tech, the killer had been declared mentally ill the year before he stalked the campus, but passed a background check at a licensed dealer’s gunshop.

The state of Virginia had failed to notify the federal government of the diagnosis.

Unfortunately, since the passage of the amendments act, states have been glacial in getting the updated information to the federal government. We wonder how many other people who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness have fallen between the cracks of the reporting system.

According to the Government Accountability Office and a study conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, most states have failed to submit information needed to update the federal database.

According to the GAO, between 2007 and late 2011, 23 states and the District of Columbia had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records, 17 had submitted fewer than 10 and four states hadn’t reported a single record.

As of 2011, Massachusetts had submitted only one mental health record to the federal government; in New Hampshire, only two; and in Vermont, 25.

Admittedly, a more robust background check system would not have prevented guns from falling into the hands of the killer of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., last month, as he had never been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday the nation needs an expansion of background checks.

As you might recall, Giffords was seriously wounded when she was shot in the head in January 2011 outside a grocery store in Tucson. Thirteen other people were wounded and six people, including a 9-year-old girl, were killed.

Kelly said the shooter had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, but even if he had, "Arizona at the time had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness it had not submitted to the background check system."

Vermont’s very own Sen. Patrick Leahy has called for the expansion of background checks to include private transfers and gun-show purchases.

"If we can all agree that criminals and those adjudicated as mentally ill should not buy firearms, why should we not try to plug the loopholes in the law that allow them to buy guns without background checks? It is a simple matter of common sense," Leahy said, during the hearings.

While we suffer the thunder from both sides of the gun control debate -- the irrational paranoia of the "from my cold dead hands" crowd and the unrealistic intractability of the "all guns should be registered" crowd -- we lose the common ground that can be found in calling for a strengthening of our background check system.

This is a simple step that can be taken to prevent those who shouldn’t have guns from obtaining them. Sure, it won’t keep firearms out of the hands of every criminal, felon and person with a serious mental illness, but we’re OK with starting with this small step.

States need to step up and do what’s right. They need to submit mental health records to the federal database. And Congress must also do what’s right by instituting a universal background check system and closing loopholes that allow some sales without those checks.

We have to start somewhere and we think both sides of the debate can cut down on the clamor long enough to agree this is something that should be done as quickly as possible.


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