Gun-sale background checks only as good as data

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Gun-sale background checks only as good as data

Published Sunday, February 24, 2013   |  742 Words  |  

No single solution will solve our gun violence problems, but a good place to start is keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who are at risk of hurting others or themselves.

Legislation announced this past week by state Attorney General Alan Wilson would narrow a long-standing information gap that could help authorities and gun dealers prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is working on federal legislation.

The issue came into sharp focus with the arrest Feb. 4 of Alice Boland of Lady's Island on charges of attempted murder and four other gun-related violations. Boland once pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity on a federal charge of threatening to kill then-President George W. Bush and members of Congress, but she was able to purchase a gun just days before the incident at Ashley Hall, a school in downtown Charleston.

Police say she pointed a gun at a school staff member, but the gun didn't fire because there was no cartridge in the chamber.

Officials from the Charleston Police Department and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Boland would not face an additional charge of illegally buying the gun, even though she filled out a required federal questionnaire that asks if the purchaser has ever been judged mentally deficient or committed to a mental institution.

Something is wrong with a system in which this can happen.

Wilson said the bill he's supporting would require state courts and agencies to send information to federal authorities about South Carolina residents who have been adjudicated to have a mental-health problem. The information would be included in a national database gun retailers use to identify those prohibited from buying firearms.

The attorney general points to a serious and disturbing disconnect in getting critical information to the people who need it.

Wilson says it is already illegal to sell guns to people with serious histories of mental illness, but about a dozen states, including South Carolina, do not send that data to the federal government to include in its database.

That means gun store operators do not always know when someone has a mental-health history that bans them from buying a a firearm.

This must change. Such information should be in the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

In a column we published Feb. 13, Frank Campbell, chief executive officer of a Washington-based security consulting firm, showed how the ball is getting dropped at the national level.

"Gun checks by the (NICS) can't keep firearms out of the wrong hands when information on a prohibited buyer is missing," Campbell writes. "This fact was underscored by the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy. The NICS check didn't stop the sale of guns to shooter Seung-Hui Cho because information about his mental health history wasn't in the system."

Congress responded to the Virginia Tech shooting by passing the NICS Improvement Act, authorizing $1.3 billion in grants to fund state agencies and court systems to correct this problem, Campbell notes. But most of the money was never appropriated. Only $50 million has been spent since 2009.

Campbell would like to see the kind of money and energy spent on a national DNA initiative go to improving the NICS. The DNA initiative, with annual funding of $100 million to $150 million, has helped state and local agencies equip DNA laboratories to analyze samples and reduce backlogs of unanalyzed samples. The total number of profiles in the system has gone from 2 million in 2004 to more than 11.3 million today.

Wilson and others are right that South Carolina's law will have to balance Second Amendment rights, privacy rights and the rights of people who may be mentally ill but not violent. That's true of federal law, too.

But surely we can do more to stop people who have been determined to be mentally ill within our legal system from buying guns.

Certainly, no system will be foolproof. In 2009, after Boland pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, the charges against her were dropped. That might have left her eligible to purchase a gun.

Still, we can achieve a better, more comprehensive system of information to protect us from illegal and inappropriate gun sales. We have to make it a priority.