Law enforcement can be powerless to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people, says the New York Times. Most states adhere to the federal standard, banning gun possession only after someone is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility or designated as mentally ill or incompetent after a court proceeding or other formal legal process. Relatively few with mental health issues reach this point. As a result, police find themselves grappling with legal ambiguities when they encounter mentally unstable people with guns, unsure how far they can go in searching for and seizing firearms and then how they should respond when owners want them back. “There is a big gap in the law,” said Jeffrey Furbee, chief legal adviser to the Columbus, Oh., Police Department. “There is no common-sense middle ground to protect the public.”
A vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. But recent mass shootings — in 2011 in Tucson 2011, at a movie theater last year in Aurora, Co., and at the Washington Navy Yard in September — have raised public awareness of the gray areas in the law. In each case, the gunman had been recognized as mentally disturbed but had never been barred from having firearms. After the Newtown killings a year ago, state legislatures debated more strictly limiting the gun rights of those with mental illness. Most bills failed amid resistance from both the gun lobby and mental health advocates concerned about unfairly stigmatizing people. What remains is the uncertain legal territory at the intersection of guns and mental illness. The Times obtained court and police records from more than 1,000 cases in which guns were seized in mental-health-related episodes. A systematic review of these cases — from cities and counties in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee — underscores how easy it is for people with serious mental health problems to have guns.