Despite four decades of federal law, keeping firearms away from the mentally ill is still hit-or miss

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Look at the faces around you in a crowded restaurant and try to guess who has a lethal psychological problem.

If that isn’t tricky enough, guess who might have a gun.

America’s firearm laws try to sort these life-and-death questions out, say legal experts, mental-health professionals and gun dealers. But hardly anyone argues that the laws are much more reliable at identifying potential mass murderers than your hunches at the restaurant.

For nearly four decades, federal laws have tried to keep guns out of the hands of severely mentally ill people who pose “a danger to themselves or to others.”

People like Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho. Or Kansas City mall shooter David W. Logsdon, whose homicidal and suicidal urges demanded far more help than what he received in six hours of observation at a hospital in 2005, according to his sister.

Enforcement of the federal prohibition on firearms for people judged “mental defective” varies from state to state – ranging from nonexistent to practically impossible to cross-your-fingers. Some jurisdictions, like the state of Maine, are only now working to close gaping holes in their laws.

It is something licensed gun dealers worry about whenever a would-be customer walks through the door.

“We do our best to screen people, but I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m a gun dealer,” said Roger Owen, who owns Onrops Ammo & Guns in Independence, Mo.

Even the National Rifle Association supports laws keeping guns out of the hands of mentally defective people, a position that some mental-health advocates resist because they think it “criminalizes” mental illness.

That concerns the Professional Gun Retailers Association, which for years has pushed to increase the amount of mental-health information available when conducting required background checks for prospective gun purchases.

But the group’s president, Andrew Molchan, said the national trend in recent years is to make access to any kind of health record even more restrictive. Molchan called the current system of background checks “Catch-22 schizophrenic.”

Increasingly constrained by privacy laws, the system tries to balance the rights of millions of emotionally troubled Americans who aren’t a threat to society against the need to keep firearms away from someone who is.

“We’ve really been swimming against the tide,” Molchan said.

A simple “No”

Riding it are unknown numbers of disturbed people who are eager to arm themselves.

Both the mall shooter and the Virginia Tech gunman had mental illness in their pasts and guns in their grasps when they died.

Beyond that, Logsdon, 51, and Cho, 23, had almost nothing in common – not even how they acquired their weapons.

Cho killed with handguns that he bought legally.

However, officials say that existing U.S. and Virginia laws should have blocked the sales because of Cho’s mental history. A court order in late 2005 declared him mentally ill and directed him to seek outpatient treatment, but that information failed to surface in the background check.

One reason: At the gun shop, Cho and all other customers were asked on Federal Form 4473: “Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective or … committed to a mental institution?” Cho simply wrote, “No.”

In Logsdon’s gun spree, he used a rifle stolen from a neighbor he had killed – actions that no restrictions on gun sales can prevent.

“There will be an irreducible number of horrible tragedies of this sort occurring in our country no matter what the laws say,” said Paul Applebaum, an official of the American Psychiatric Association.

But it is probable that Logsdon, like Cho, could have cleared legal hurdles in buying a firearm, as Logsdon did when purchasing magazines for an M-1 carbine at an Overland Park, Kan., gun shop days before his rampage.

Logsdon’s mental problems apparently had never reached the courts, which is the only way that such information can stop a gun sale in Missouri, Kansas or most other states.

Paper pushing

On paper, the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 bans firearm possession and gun transfers to anyone who has been involuntary committed to a mental institution or “adjudicated as a mental defective” in court – at least for several years after successful treatment.

To help make that law work, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. The computerized system is used by federally licensed firearms dealers.

The NICS interfaces with two other systems that contain records from federal and state agencies to check criminal records and identify those who are not allowed to have guns, magazines or ammunition. Such people include convicted felons and veterans who have been dishonorably discharged.

But the prohibitions depend on record-keepers feeding data to the FBI. Only 22 states currently submit mental-health information to NICS’ Mental Defective File or its Denied Persons File, according to the FBI.

Roughly 3 million Americans have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions, but the NICS database contains the names of fewer than 235,000.

More than a dozen states in a 2004 Justice Department study attributed their inability to funnel mental-health records into NICS to “too few resources,” primitive databases or “limited time.”

But some mental-health advocacy groups also have played a role by resisting legislative efforts to put teeth into gun laws.

Requiring courts to relay mental-health information to authorities “criminalizes mental illness,” said Sheila Osborn of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Greater Kansas City. “I would say that’s probably the most stigmatizing thing that could happen to someone.

“… When you’re going as far as wanting to single out individuals who have a chronic biological mental illness and not single out individuals who have an anger-management problem or any type of high-risk problem, that’s just plain ridiculous,” Osborn said.

Despite intense media coverage, studies suggest that mentally ill people are responsible for less than 5 percent of violent crimes.

Legislative efforts to direct more mental-health records into the NICS database “imply that all people who have acute-care needs related to a mental illness are dangerous,” Kirk Lowry of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas said at a legislative hearing last year.

Such measures also could result in fewer Americans seeking treatment for mental illness for fear of their records reaching national databases, said Allen Rostron, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who formerly worked for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But the NRA agrees with many gun-control groups that laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of the “mental defective” need to be enforced.

“This isn’t about gun control. It’s about common sense,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.

No sale

Gun dealers often are the last line of defense in keeping weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, but the dealers often feel defenseless.

Mike Malone, the owner of the Olathe Gun Shop, said he has to worry about being accused of discrimination if he refuses to make a sale.

“Customers come in all colors, all shapes and sizes,” Malone said. “But you don’t know what happened to them 15 years ago or 15 minutes ago. All you can do is follow proper procedure.”

Joe Pruett remembers working in a sporting goods store several years ago when a young man wanted to buy a shotgun for deer hunting. But something about the man’s movements and speech made Pruett uncomfortable.

“I knew right away I wasn’t going to sell him a gun,” he said.

Pruett, a retired Olathe police officer, later learned that the man had been diagnosed with a serious mental disorder and that his family had unsuccessfully tried to have him admitted for treatment. Later that day, the man strangled and beat his mother and great-aunt to death. A court found him not guilty by reason of insanity and committed him to a state hospital.

Gun dealers can only hope most customers are honest when filling out forms that ask whether they have ever been committed.

Some customers, like Cho, are not.

While it is a federal crime to provide false information, the law appears to be unenforced. A study by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation found that, of more than 126,000 people who allegedly lied during background checks in 2003, only 532 were prosecuted.

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