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Matching up mentally ill with gun permits


Severely mentally ill people in many states have easy access to firearms and are rarely reported to a background check registry meant to prevent dangerous people from buying guns.

Arkansas legislative panels have adopted a number of proposals during hearings focused on gun violence in the wake of recent mass shootings.

A state senator in Nevada used the example of a man who killed four people at a restaurant in Carson City on Sept. 6, 2011, as an example of a mentally ill person who was committed to psychiatric institutions several times, yet was able to buy high-powered weapons both from licensed dealers and private individuals.

“At one point, in fact, (the mentally ill man) attempted to sell an Uzi to a local gun shop,” the lawmaker noted. “Each time (he) purchased weapons from a licensed dealer, an FBI background check was run. However, because the commitments were not reported to the FBI, he was not prohibited from purchasing firearms.”

The shooter, 32, never got into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System because he voluntarily committed himself to psychiatric hospitals after being diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18.

Two months before the 2011 shootings with a modified automatic weapon, the man’s medication was changed, and he told a priest he was hearing voices, observed the lawmaker, who recounted the story as he opened the hearing before the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which the lawmaker chaired.

The senator said he called the hearing on mental illness and firearms to hear from experts in the field to determine whether Nevada lawmakers can take any actions to prevent such violence in the future.

Those testifying said there are gaps in the system, which often prevent even the most dangerous mentally ill people who are suicidal or homicidal from being reported to the federal background registry for gun purchases.

A judge who supervises the mental health court in one Nevada county, said even when he commits someone to a psychiatric hospital against their will, they don’t get reported to the gun background check registry if they’re released within 30 days. Most patients are released fairly quickly after going back on medication. The judge said a hearing is held 45 days after the original commitment to determine the status of the case.

“That’s a problem,” the lawmaker said.

A chief deputy sheriff in one Nevada county suggested mentally ill people are placed in the registry as soon as an order is signed placing a person under 72-hour observation.

The judge explained that abruptly putting someone in the federal registry could violate the person’s Second Amendment right to have a gun because due process may require the individual to be legally deemed mentally ill first.

A Nevada lawmaker proposed a middle ground with legislation that would put mentally ill people in the background check registry after a formal petition is filed to commit them. The petition requires a diagnosis of mental illness by a psychiatrist, he added.

Psychiatrists and psychologists in Arkansas maintain violating anybody’s Second Amendment rights must include a provision to allow that person to regain their ability to buy firearms after they’re no longer considered a threat.

One East Arkansas criminal cases several decades ago involved a physically handicapped man who was abused by his caretaker. A second caretaker was hired by the man’s family, who didn’t didn’t run a background check on the latest caretaker. This time the family’s lapse proved fatal.

Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.