Why It’s Difficult to Keep Mentally Ill People from Using Firearms


Police couldn’t stop a Maine man off his meds for bipolar disorder from possessing an AK-47 and several handguns, says NPR. He was arrested for speeding as he drive to shoot a former employer. “We’re very limited — very, very limited to what we can do,” says Biddeford Police Deputy Chief JoAnne Fisk. “Just because somebody has a hunch, we will investigate it. But everybody has rights, and you have the right to bear arms in this country.” Federal law bars gun sales to the mentally ill only if they’ve ever been deemed by a judge to be mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed.

Dennis Henigan of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says Maine has reported just a couple of dozen people out of what may be thousands who should be disqualified — and Pennsylvania, for example, has reported just one. “Our estimate is that we’re probably still missing a million of these records, and this is ridiculous,” Henigan says. Even if reporting were perfect, experts question how much gun violence would be prevented. Federal law doesn’t require background checks when guns are sold privately, and even at licensed dealers, the law may not be disqualifying the most dangerous of the mentally ill. “Do we really know that we’re finding the right people?” says Jeff Swanson, a psychiatric professor at Duke University School of Medicine. He says it might make sense legally to only disqualify those who have been officially deemed by a court to be mentally unfit. That’s the due process courts require. Clinically, Swanson says, it’s a pretty arbitrary line.

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