Sunday, December 2, 2007

Additions to the FBI's Gun Background Check System

Nikki Fellenzer points to this Washington Post article about the expansion of the National Information Background Check System:
Justice officials said the FBI's "Mental Defective File" has ballooned from 175,000 names in June to nearly 400,000, primarily because of additions from California. The names are listed in a subset of a database that gun dealers are supposed to check before completing sales.

The surge in names underscores the size of the gap in FBI records that allowed Seung Hui Cho to purchase the handguns he used in April to kill 32 people and himself at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg.

A Virginia state court found Cho to be dangerously mentally ill in 2005 and ordered him to receive outpatient treatment. But because Cho was not ordered into hospital treatment, the court's order was never provided to the FBI and incorporated in its database. Two gun dealers checked the list before selling Cho the 9mm Glock 19 and the Walther .22-caliber pistol he used in the shootings.

For nearly four decades, federal law has prohibited gun sales to people judged to be "mentally defective," but enforcement has been haphazard. A 1995 Supreme Court ruling barred the federal government from forcing states to provide the data, and 18 states -- including Delaware and West Virginia -- provide no mental health-related information to the FBI at all. Both Virginia and Maryland do provide the data.
Nikki doesn't see that this expansion of the list does much good:
How easy is it to get one's hands on a gun if 80 percent of the ones used in crimes are obtained illegally? Ever heard of a black market?
She has a very good point with respect to convicted felons, who have all sorts of sources for guns--for a price. But people who have been declared mentally incompetent (usually for psychosis, not retardation) are in a rather different situation.

Some of them are so obviously crazy that a gun store wouldn't sell them a gun, no matter what. My guess is that relatively few of the black market sources for guns would do so either--for fear that such a person might use the gun on the seller.

Others may go through episodes where they are obviously psychotic, interrupted by periods of apparent sanity. Someone like Cho Seung-Hui was not obviously psychotic--and yet was, even before the massacre, severely enough disturbed that it was obvious to those who knew him that he was not right in the head. I suspect that many of the informal sources of guns that we lump together as "black market" (which includes friends, relatives, someone you met at a party) would have been reluctant to sell to Cho Seung-Hui simply because he was a bit odd.

Let's not kid ourselves that the background check system works perfectly. Like all systems, it works at the margins. It may prevent 10-15% of the mentally ill from buying a gun from a dealer. It may slow down how rapidly another 5-10% of the mentally ill obtain a gun. Is this a good thing? Yes. A system doesn't have to work perfectly to still be of value. As long as the system prevents some prohibited buyers from getting guns, and delays some prohibited buyers from getting guns--without impairing lawful purchasers from buying guns--that's a good thing.

There comes a point where you have to look at the costs. If keeping a gun out of a mental patient's hands costs the government $1, I think we can immediately see this as a reasonable expenditure. If it costs $100,000 for every gun we keep out of a mental patient's hands, I think we can spend the money more wisely. Perhaps that $100,000 could be more usefully spent fixing our incredibly broken mental health system, for example, so that psychotics receive treatment, instead of wandering the streets until they decide that they are Emperor of Colorado, and try to stage a coup using a handgun. But the mere fact that some states are actually beginning to report those who have been involuntarily committed is not necessarily a problem.

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