Post-Virginia Tech Debate On Expanding NICS Continues
May 10, 2007
by Joseph P. Tartaro
In the last issue of Gun Week (May 1) we reported on the controversy within the firearms community that surrounds current efforts in Congress to expand the National Instant Check System (NICS) to bar seriously mentally ill people from acquiring guns.
Like so many new gun law proposals, the legislation is a reaction to the Virginia Tech mass murders of Apr. 16 by a student who had been ordered to get psychiatric counseling by a court but fell outside the letter of the law regarding being listed as a prohibited person.
The legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and John Dingell (D-MI) has divided the gun community, but gunowners are not the only ones who are opposing the proposal.
Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff does an excellent job of reporting on the different views on both sides of the issue in the news magazine’s Apr. 24 issue, which may help explain to the gun community as well as the general public, why this issue has become so contentious.
Isikoff’s column begins with a newsy lead:
“In his first public comments since last week’s massacre, the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) top lobbyist said on Apr. 24 that the group backs proposed new legislation designed to ensure that mentally unstable killers like Cho Seung-Hui do not gain access to firearms.
“Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, told Newsweek that Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, ‘absolutely’ should have been barred from buying a gun under current federal laws,” Isikoff continued. “But LaPierre nonetheless says the group is now working with longtime ally… Dingell… on a bill to ensure that mental-health recordssuch as the December 2005 court order directing Cho to receive a psychiatric evaluationare entered” into the NICS database.
Federal law already prohibits gun sales to men and women who have been found to be mentally “defective,” but most states have a shoddy track record of reporting mental-health records to the feds, Newsweek noted.
“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,” said LaPierre, according to Isikoff. “The federal law is pretty clear on this. He (Cho) should have been in the (FBI) data base.”
Immediately following the Virginia Tech shootings on Apr. 16, the NRA put out a brief statement expressing sympathy but saying that “out of the respect for the families” of the victims, it would forswear any public comments about the political implications of the tragedy.
“But since then,” Isikoff continues, “there has been a sharpening debate about whether enforcement of the gun laws should be tightened to prevent mentally unstable individuals like Cho from acquiring weapons.
The NRA’s position puts the group at odds with Gun Owners of America (GOA), which has already launched a public campaign to block the legislation that the NRA supports, warning that the proposal could “block millions of additional, honest gunowners from buying firearms.”
The NRA boasts more than 3.5 million members while GOA has only 300,000, but maintains clout in the Capitol disproportionate to its numbers, Isikoff added parenthetically.
Isikoff then discusses GOA’s communications with members and supporters using its website and e-mail and fax alerts to spread the word. The GOA alert warned that even military veterans who were found to have suffered from “post-traumatic stress” disorders could have their names entered into the database and be denied their gun rights. This was clearly supported by an earlier dump of Veterans’ Administration hospital records to the FBI that contained the names of many people who had undergone counseling but had not been adjudicated a danger to anyone.
Then Newsweek’s Isikoff opened the door on other opposition to the proposal being crafted in Congress.
“The debate grew hotter still today when an official of the American Psychiatric Association denounced the proposed bill sponsored by Dingell and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy…,” the report continued. “The measure would provide $1.1 billion in funding to the states and local courts systems over the next three years to computerize records of mental-health orders and commitments so they can be entered into the FBI’s… NICS database that is used for background checks of prospective gun buyers. (Currently, only 22 states provide mental-health records to the FBI; many of those that do, such as Virginia, don’t provide complete records of all mental-health commitments and detentions.)
“ ‘This looks like an enormously expensive, extremely intrusive, extremely stigmatizing approach to a tragic situation,’ Dr. Nada Stotland, vice president of the psychiatric association, the largest group representing the nation’s psychiatrists, said of the McCarthy bill. ‘It is unconscionable to restrict people’s civil rights because they have a medical illness.’
“In his interview with Newsweek, LaPierre brushed aside suggestions that measures such as the McCarthy bill constituted a new form of “gun control” as the Gun Owners of America have charged. He said the NRA, which has long been a powerful opponent of gun control, has always supported denying gun rights to those who are mentally “defective”one of the categories of individuals who are banned from owning firearms under the 1968 Gun Control Act. (Others include felons, fugitives, and drug users.) “We’ve been there for decades on this,” said LaPierre. “We just don’t think it’s really gun control to try to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally defective.”
McCarthy told Newsweek that she was pleasantly surprised to hear of the NRA’s public position, noting that an executive of Gun Owners of America had met with House Republicans this week to gin up opposition to her measure. “I have a feeling that this is their (the NRA’s) way of showing they can be moderate,” she said. (A McCarthy aide said that when the congresswoman’s staff members met with NRA lobbyists last January about her proposed measure, the NRA officials said they would not publicly support it unless language was added that would eliminate the existing ban on interstate purchases of firearms. No such language has been added, the aide said.)
“Still, McCarthy said today she thought LaPierre’s public statement would buck up House Democratic leaders who have been extremely averse to any measure that might be labeled as gun control,” Isikoff continued. “ ‘Their knees are shaking constantly,’ McCarthy said about her party’s leaders in the House, according to the Newsweek reporter. “They are scared of anything that might be controversial on gun issues.”
According to Isikoff, McCarthy also said that the concerns raised by the American Psychiatric Association were overstated.
“My bottom line,” said McCarthy in the closing Newsweek quote, “I’m sorry, if you’re mentally ill, you should not be able to buy a gun.”
The bill’s number is HR-297. It may come to the floor, but while the anti-gunners, encouraged by media support, are pushing for a fast vote, cooler heads may prevail.
The last time the issue was raised in Congress, the mental health professionals and civil libertarians were also opposed to the proposal. Gunowners appear split at the moment, but the devil is in the details.
There may be some merit in the proposal, but the prohibitory language has to be very narrowly defined. And there has to be a workable appellate process. If your name or that of someone you know is on that list, you should be notified, and it shouldn’t be some list that gets into a newspaper or on the Internet.
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