Sunday, December 16, 2012

Some suggestions for improving the gun background check system

The U.S. is still reeling over the mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut. Along with the expressions of horror and disgust over the murder of 20 children, all of whom were ages six or seven, and all of whom were shot multiple times, are calls to do something about the epidemic of gun violence. There have been 61 mass shootings since the Columbine High School massacre, but they're the tip of the iceberg. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reports that there were 9,146 gun-related homicides in the U.S. in 2011, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 18,735 gun-related suicides in the U.S. in 2009.

Gun regulation has become a "third rail" political issue in the U.S., but the Newtown massacre may get President Obama and the U.S. Congress to finally do something about the rate of gun violence. According to The New York Times, the U.S. Justice Department drew up recommendations for improving the mandatory automatic background check system after the Tucson shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of Federal Judge John Roll and others. However, the plans were abandoned in the wake of the "Fast and Furious" gun "walking" scandal.

The recommendations, which are only sketched out in the Times article, would likely help keep people who represent risks to themselves or others from getting guns, but they could do much more:
  • Currently, states are encouraged, but not required, to provide information on criminal records and involuntary admissions to mental hospitals to the Federal background check system. Some states are years behind in their record submissions, and others don't submit information to the background check system at all. The Justice Department's proposal offers money to the states in order to get them to participate. I'd go one step further and require that the states participate and keep their records current. Those that don't would be subject to having their Federal funding for state and local police departments, prison systems and homeland security suspended.
  • The Federal system lets states determine how to define who they report as mentally "defective," but I propose requiring states to report both voluntary and involuntary admissions to mental hospitals. Any admission to a mental hospital would result in a lifetime ban on purchasing firearms or ammunition.
  • There are private databases that provide extensive information to insurance companies about individuals' medical history. These databases are used by insurance companies to help determine whether or not to provide medical coverage or issue life insurance. My suggestion is to add these databases to the state and Federal submissions, and to deny firearm and ammo purchases to anyone who has been treated for a variety of mental illnesses, including a ban on purchases for five years from the most recent filling of a prescription for an antidepressant, mood stabilizer or antipsychotic medication. The insurance database could simply respond back with a "go" or "no-go" in order to protect the privacy of applicants.
I recognize that this wouldn't have prevented the Newtown massacre, because the shooter got his weapons and ammunition from his mother (but, on the other hand, what was an elementary school teacher in a safe town doing with two semiautomatic handguns and an assault rifle? Correction, December 16, 2012: Early reports that said that the shooter's mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School are incorrect. She home schooled the shooter for a few years, but was not a teacher by training.) However, it likely would have prevented the Tucson massacre and many others. In addition, it would cut down on suicides by gun, and help to keep guns out of the hands of people with impulse control problems. And, it would keep medical professionals from having to make judgment calls about whether or not to report patients to authorities.

This approach wouldn't affect the kind of guns, ammunition or magazines available to law-abiding citizens, but it would help to keep guns out of the hands of the people most likely to use them to hurt themselves or others--known criminals and people with mental conditions linked to violence. If the argument "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is true, let's get guns out of the hands of the people who are most likely to kill themselves or others.

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