Can Gun Background Check System For Mentally Ill People Be Fixed?


One of President Obama’s gun proposals appears to have widespread support: universal background checks for gun purchases, says NPR. Some experts on mental health and gun violence find problems with the current laws, and they say the system doesn’t do a very good job of predicting and preventing gun crime. Federal law is supposed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but many say the language in the current law is outdated and confusing. “People adjudicated as mentally defective is one category, and the second category are people committed to mental institutions, and that’s the terminology that’s used in that law,” says Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He says the language is “horribly stigmatizing, and in fact so offensive that it’s hard to even discuss the substantive aspects of the law.”

Honberg also says it’s not particularly helpful to officials who have to decide who should and shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun. He says “no one really understands what it means.” “Mental health records are woefully incomplete,” says Duke professor Philip Cook, who studies gun violence. “There are something like 30 states that do not submit records.” Cook says even when records are accurate and up to date, the current system doesn’t do a very good job of predicting and preventing gun crime. He recently completed a study of alleged murderers in the Chicago area. “What we found was that only 40 percent of them had a felony conviction in the preceding 10 years,” he says.

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