Sadly, what we could have done to prevent a tragedy only becomes apparent after a tragedy has occurred.
That’s exactly what happened in 2007 when Seung Hui Cho used several newly purchased guns to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech.
He had been declared mentally ill by a judge, which should have barred him from gun possession under federal law. However, his name never was submitted to a national database of people forbidden from owning guns.
That database, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, has been operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 1998.
“The NICS is all about saving lives and protecting people from harm by not letting guns and explosives fall into the wrong hands,” according to the FBI.
More than 100 million background checks have been done during the past decade, resulting in about 700,000 denials, according to the FBI.
After the Virginia Tech shootings, Congress unanimously passed the NICS Improvement Act in 2008 and created a system of incentives for states to participate. Much of the money allocated for the program, however, has not been distributed to states to improve their systems.
Now, three years later, there are wide disparities in participation among states.
Since the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Virginia has 139,000 names on the list of people with a mental illness making them ineligible to buy or possess guns.
California has 256,106 names on the list; New York has 154,962 and Texas 60,680.
Maine has 25 names on the NICS list, meaning there are only a couple dozen people in the state deemed mentally ill and unfit to buy or possess guns.
If we were participating at the same rate as Texas, we would have 3,133 names on the list. If we were participating with the same zeal as Virginia, we would have 22,607 people listed.
We have no idea what the right number for Maine would be, but we clearly have more than 25 people with serious mental illnesses in this state who should not buy or possess guns.
Dale Armstrong, resident agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ Portland office, recently told the Sun Journal about one Maine man who should have been on the list.
Raymond Hunter Geisel of Bangor was arrested in 2008 in Miami with an arsenal of weapons after threatening to assault George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
He had been involuntarily committed in Maine, but his name was not placed on the NICS list.
“There have been quite a few cases of people adjudicated mentally ill who have gotten their hands on guns,” Armstrong said.
To be clear, neither being mentally ill nor seeking mental health help makes a person ineligible to own a gun.
The only people on the NICS list are those a judge has decided are a danger to themselves or others.
Maine State Police Maj. Raymond Bessette told the Sun Journal that Maine lawmakers have used “caution” in balancing public safety with individual rights.
Having 25 names on the list doesn’t reflect caution; it reflects a state sticking its head in the sand.
This failure means we have a preventable tragedy waiting to happen.
Gun rights activists often say we don’t need more gun control laws, we just need to enforce the laws on the books.
Our failure to enforce this law is exactly what they are talking about.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.