Calls to expand firearm background checks beyond mentally ill

cjarvis@newsobserver.comDecember 24, 2013 

  • North Carolina’s gun laws

    A law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory expands the places that people with permits to carry concealed weapons can take their guns, including into bars, restaurants that serve alcohol, and on school and recreational property if they keep their weapons locked in their vehicles.

    The state’s gun laws have some of the restrictions that the Consortium for Risk-Based Policy suggests.

    Among N.C.’s requirements:

    • Court clerks must report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System whenever someone is disqualified from buying or receiving a gun. Felony convictions and mental incompetency are among the reasons someone would be disqualified.

    • Court clerks are required to notify the federal system when someone has been identified as “unlawful users” or addicted to illegal drugs, but doesn’t define those terms or the process. Those technical problems are expected to be addressed in the short session that begins in May.

    • Sheriffs can revoke an already issued handgun purchase permit when someone does something that would have disqualified them from having a permit, such as a felony conviction.

    • Sheriffs can disqualify an applicant who has committed a felony, is under a domestic violence restraining order, abuses drugs, is a fugitive or has been committed to a mental institution.

    Sheriffs issue separate permits for those who want to carry concealed handguns.

    Staff writer Craig Jarvis

States should make background checks for firearm buyers a stronger tool to prevent gun violence by focusing not only on applicants with mental illness but also on whether they have been violent or abused alcohol or drugs, a group of experts says.

At the same time, it should be easier to temporarily confiscate the weapons of people who do have mental health issues. And law enforcement should have more authority to remove guns from those who pose an immediate or even possible, credible threat to themselves or others, according to a report issued this month.

For those measures to work, the report concludes, all firearm transfers should require background checks.

“We’re trying to reframe the approach to be more about individual assessment of risk and less about the categorical exclusion of people with mental health diagnoses,” Jeffrey W. Swanson, a Duke University School of Medicine psychiatry professor who worked on the report, said Monday. “The idea in the public mind that everybody with mental illness is a dangerous, homicidal monster is just wrong.”

In fact, he said, mental illness is a factor in only a small fraction of gun violence overall, something around 4 to 5 percent. Mass shootings such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut a year ago draw news media attention but are rare, compared with the estimated 31,000 gun deaths reported each year.

Determining ahead of time who is most likely to shoot others or themselves is the challenge, he said. So the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy has come up with recommendations focused on the past behavior of those who want to buy guns. The report urges states to temporarily suspend gun rights to those who meet these profiles:

• Anyone convicted of a violent misdemeanor.

• Anyone subject to a temporary domestic-violence restraining order.

• Anyone convicted of two or more driving while impaired or misdemeanor controlled substance convictions within five years.

The report recommends temporarily confiscating guns from those who have been briefly held involuntarily in a mental health facility, even if they haven’t been formally committed by a judicial or administrative order. The report suggests states also develop specific timelines and processes for restoring gun rights.

N.C. restrictions

Some of those restrictions are already in place in North Carolina, but others – such as including misdemeanor assaults, impaired driving and short mental health commitments – go beyond current law. Whether the North Carolina General Assembly will be receptive remains to be seen. The GOP-led legislature has expanded gun rights over the past three years. None of the legislators who have sponsored gun rights bills could be reached on Tuesday.

Republican Majority Leader Rep. Edgar Starnes of Hickory said he wouldn’t comment without reading the report.

This year, the legislature passed and the governor signed a firearms bill that expanded the places where people could carry concealed weapons. It also strengthened reporting to the federal background check system.

Lawmakers are expected to revisit that issue in the short session in May because state court administrators said there were technical problems and ambiguous wording with the background checks portion of the new law. It requires court clerks to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System whenever someone is disqualified from buying or receiving a gun. Felony convictions and mental incompetency are among the reasons someone would be disqualified.

Bloomberg solutions discounted

The idea of background checks remains controversial. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate defeated a bill that would have expanded background checks to firearms sold at gun shows, amid intense lobbying by the National Rifle Association. The proposed legislation – spurred by the Newtown, Conn., school shootings – could be resurrected if its sponsors can muster enough senators to change their minds.

One group formed in response to Sandy Hook, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, claims to have chapters in every state, including North Carolina, and is pushing for the background-check expansion.

In January, in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, Johns Hopkins University convened more than 20 gun violence experts, including Duke's Swanson, from around the country at a meeting in Baltimore. The group recently published a book of possible solutions, each chapter written by one of the participants.

The Consortium for Risk-Based Policy, which Swanson is also part of, was likewise propelled by the Sandy Hook shootings. The consortium produced two reports this month, one recommending state policies and the other federal policies.

Consortium members presented their findings to policymakers on Capitol Hill. Swanson acknowledged the recommendations will be met with mixed reaction.

“Guns are radioactive, politically,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to have a reasonable discourse. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Gun-rights groups are just as adamant, and discount anything Bloomberg does as biased against gun ownership.

Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, the state’s main gun-rights group, on Tuesday said the report sounded like another effort to deprive people of their constitutional right to own guns. He said there were already sufficient safeguards in place dealing with the mentally ill and convicted felons, and he opposes the move to take away further gun rights.

Gun proponents have accused the Obama administration of trying to establish a national gun registry by expanding background checks, even though the proposed Senate legislation explicitly prohibits a national registry.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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