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Other Voices System fails to detect mentally ill

First District Congressman Rick Crawford makes no sense when he opposes expanded background checks for people who purchase firearms while at the same time contending that we should strengthen the ability to identify and keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness.

You simply can’t have one without the other.

Crawford was right last week when he told representatives of The Jonesboro Sun that “the real core problem” with the ever-lengthening list of U.S. mass murders is a mental health problem. Almost all the people who commit such crimes have a history of mental illness.

Heck, it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to conclude that someone who opens fire on innocent people, especially kids, has a mental disease or defect. The problem is how to detect and treat that problem in advance, as well as to keep that person from gaining access to guns.

Crawford offers no help, instead parroting the line of the National Rifle Association, which now opposes expanding background checks for firearms purchasers. Previously, the NRA was for more thorough background checks, and it’s a wonder that didn’t happen since so many lawmakers clamber to please the gun lobby.

“I think we have sufficient legislation and regulations in place to address all those concerns,” Crawford said in regard to background checks. “… What we need to do is be more diligent in enforcing those laws.”

But we don’t have an enforcement problem. We have a system for checking backgrounds that is incomplete and inefficient in gathering data because much of it depends on voluntary participation by the states. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1998 and 2009, only .03 percent of the 95 million potential gun buyers whose records were scanned by the FBI were denied a gun because of mental illness. That’s just 28,637 nationwide in 12 years.

Keep in mind that background checks are required only when a purchase is made from a licensed gun dealer. To regulate gun sales between individuals would be problematic, though we manage to keep up with vehicle sales.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Act) of 1993 created a national system for checking available records as a means of preventing the transfer of firearms to people disqualified from receiving those firearms. That can include people with felony convictions or who have been adjudicated as mentally ill. Called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the program is administered by a unit of the FBI. NICS can provide a computerized background check for a firearms dealer, sometimes in no more than 30 seconds.

Unfortunately, and sometimes tragically, the FBI database is far from complete, especially in regard to mental illness.

For one thing, all states aren’t required to develop and maintain lists of people who are mentally ill by law. Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana are among the 10 that don’t.

Another seven states, including Arkansas, have mental illness databases but don’t share them with the FBI. So the mentally ill people in one-third of all states won’t turn up in the FBI checks. (The Arkansas database is available to the State Police in conducting state background checks.)

The FBI says that 13 states have become full participants in developing their own NICS programs, giving them full access to the FBI database and actively contributing to it. Those are called point-of-contact states.

Eight other states qualify as partial point-of-contact states because they can conduct background checks with some processing help from the FBI. That means gun dealers in the remaining states must make background checks through the FBI, even though its information is incomplete.

Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho was, under federal law, prohibited from buying a firearm because he had been declared by a judge to be a danger to himself. But because Virginia didn’t report mental health records to the FBI, he had no trouble buying guns and ammunition and proving himself quite dangerous to others as well.

Does that sound like we have sufficient legislation and regulations in place?

Remember, those mental illness databases include only people who have been found in a court of law to be mentally ill, and the definitions vary from state to state. Even so, that’s a small percentage of all people who are mentally ill, most of whom are not violent.

Because of its stigma our society hides mental illness, and yet the National Alliance on Mental Illness says that half of all adults who have serious mental illness show some symptoms by the age of 14. We do a sorry job of diagnosing and treating mental illness, and the public institutions that do are typically poorly funded.

Granted, some of the shooters in mass killings of recent years, including those who opened fire at the Westside Middle School in 1998, showed no previous signs of mental illness. Further, they stole the guns they used so a background check wouldn’t have prevented that tragedy in any case.

But we have the ability to stop some of these killings, and we don’t need to ban assault weapons or even those high-capacity ammunition clips to do it. We just need to face reality and make the necessary changes to deal with the flash point — a gun in the hands of a mentally ill person.

Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.

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