Before issuing thousands of permits each year to buy handguns, North Carolina county sheriffs go through an oft-futile exercise. Relying on a law allowing them to ensure gun owners are of “good moral character,” they submit applicants' names to large health care facilities seeking to learn whether anyone was suicidal or otherwise mentally unfit to own a pistol, McClatchy Newspapers reports. Under the 1968 U.S. Gun Control Act, the sheriffs are entitled to know whether an applicant is disqualified from gun owning by a court finding of mental illness, inability to manage one’s affairs or being a danger to himself and others. Except for those seeking concealed carry permits, who are required to release mental health information, sheriffs say the door is almost always slammed shut on disclosure of information. Most requests for mental health information are caught in a legal stalemate between law enforcement needs and health facilities' concerns about patient privacy, a key conflict in the national debate over how to stem a spate of mass killings.
Recurring scenarios of heavily armed men, some possibly psychotic, firing randomly at defenseless children, nursing home patients, or parishioners have left everyone from President Obama to local cops grasping for answers. A number of the shooters in scores of mass killings had mental health problems, but still were able to legally buy guns. Addressing the obstacles to keeping firearms away from mentally troubled people has emerged as an area of potential common ground among some stakeholders in the hard-bitten debate over gun control. The National Rifle Association believes there must be “a formal process before stripping a person of a constitutional right” to own a gun, said the NRA’s Amy Hunter. “We are troubled by any sort of broad 'suitable persons' standard . . . that gives a local official the discretion to determine ad hoc whether a citizen can exercise a constitutional right.”