To reduce gun violence, tighten gun ownership standards

Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, calls Craig Stephen Hicks “the poster person for our study.” The study he’s talking about is one in which Swanson and researchers from Duke, Harvard and Columbia exam guns and gun owners with a certain goal in mind: “What we’re trying to do is refocus the process of figuring out who are the dangerous people who shouldn’t have access to firearms.”

That means going by more than how many guns there are and how many concealed permits there are. And Swanson isn’t one to pass the same label on all gun owners, most of whom are responsible owners. Rather, the study looks at “angry adults” who have access to guns and though they have the necessary permits and may never have been treated for mental health problems could pose a threat to others.

That’s why Swanson was asked to comment on Hicks, the man accused in the shooting deaths of three Muslim college-age students in a Chapel Hill condominium parking lot in February.

Hicks is in custody and has not come to trial. But family and friends of the three students, Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were the victims in the shootings with which Hicks stands charged, tell a scary story.

They say Hicks complained so much about parking patterns at the condo complex that the housing association told him to stop. They also say that more than once, he revealed a gun holstered to his hip.

In other words, the personality profile of Hicks is that of an angry person, someone common sense alone would raise caution flags about, in terms of such a person having access to firearms.

And Hicks had plenty of access. He had valid permits and is alleged to have had a cache of a dozen firearms.

Swanson thinks behaviorial issues ought to have a part in determining whether a person should have a gun. He thinks, for example, that someone with misdemeanor assault convictions, drunken driving arrests or domestic violence incidents might constitute a high-risk for gun ownership.

As it stands now, getting a gun permit depends on county sheriffs in North Carolina. And gun laws vary from state to state. Federal law does limit access for those convicted of felonies or those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. Swanson and his colleagues would like to see added to the federal law things like assault, brandishing a weapon and making open threats.

Unfortunately, incidents like the one in Chapel Hill fuel both sides of the gun rights debate, with those against gun restrictions claiming, sometimes in a rather cloudy way, that such incidents could be prevented if more people had access to guns. The logic goes: A person intent on mayhem, such as the shooter in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, when 26 people, including 20 children were killed, might be killed themselves before doing too much damage if more people had guns.

In North Carolina, more “gun bills” seem to be coming all the time, reducing the requirements for permits, shortening wait times for those permits, even creating a new permit granting holders the right to carry their concealed guns virtually anywhere a police officer can carry one.

The sponsor of some of these bills, Sen. Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County, ignores critics and says, “We’ve got evil people. There’s no possible way police can respond to everything.” But his argument seems to be one for taking the law into one’s own hands, making every citizen with the qualifications to get a special permit the equivalent of Dirty Harry. The thing is ... Dirty Harry was a police officer.

Most law-abiding, sporting gun owners aren’t interested in being part of a citizen militia. We have seen in recent months that certified officers with guns are capable of making deadly mistakes. Swanson has it right: The reasons for denying permits should be examined and refined not to make it easier on all, including some people who may be disturbed, to get guns, but to make it harder.