July 18, 2008

Legislators Ban the Sale of Guns to the Mentally Ill

By James Romoser, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.

Jul. 18--State legislators voted today to prevent the purchase of guns by people who have been deemed dangerously mentally ill.

The bill, which passed unanimously, is a response to the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007. It requires the state to report to an FBI database the names of people who are found by the court system to be so mentally ill that they pose a threat to themselves or to others.

The database is used by gun sellers to determine if someone is ineligible to own a gun.

"We clearly do not want guns being in the hands of dangerous people, whether they have a mental illness or not," said John Tote, a mental-health advocate in Raleigh.

With the bill, North Carolina joins many other states that have tightened rules for background checks in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech.

The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had been declared by a judge in late 2005 to be mentally ill and an imminent danger to himself. After a brief stay at a psychiatric hospital, he was ordered to receive psychological counseling, but no one monitored him.

Under federal law, that mental-health history should probably have disqualified Cho from buying a gun. But his name was never entered into the FBI database, and he was able to buy two semiautomatic pistols and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He used those weapons to kill 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech before killing himself.

A review following the rampage made clear that many states have done a poor job of reporting mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Congress responded by passing a law that clarified what records states must report and providing money to help them do so.

The bill that passed the N.C. General Assembly today is in line with the federal law. It also provides a judicial procedure for people to prove that they are no longer dangerous in order to have their names removed from the database.

The bill, which is Senate Bill 2081, now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

North Carolina's attorney general, Roy Cooper, sought the bill and worked on it with the legislature.

"We all want to keep the kinds of tragic shootings we've seen at places like Virginia Tech from happening here in North Carolina," Cooper said in a written statement. "Closing this loophole to prevent the dangerously mentally ill from buying guns will help make our schools and communities safer."

North Carolina law on involuntary commitments differs from Virginia law. In Virginia, after being deemed a danger to himself, Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient counseling.

In North Carolina, that should not happen. In this state, anyone who is found to pose a danger "to self or others" is supposed to be committed to inpatient treatment at a psychiatric hospital.

It was unclear this afternoon how many people each year are involuntarily committed because they are found to be dangerously mentally ill. Tote, who is the executive director of the Mental Health Association in North Carolina Inc., said that the number is not very high, and that the majority of such patients pose a danger chiefly to themselves, not to others.

Some advocates for gun-ownership rights opposed earlier versions of the bill. But after several provisions were rewritten, the state's leading gun rights group, Grass Roots North Carolina, dropped its opposition.

F. Paul Valone, the group's president, said he was neutral on the bill because it goes no further than what federal law requires states to report.

He said he does not think it will make people any safer.

"We are depriving unstable individuals from one particular type of weapon -- a firearm. Does that prevent them from driving a car through a crowd of people" Valone said. "Does it prevent them from taking a samurai sword and cleaning house? No."

Valone added that people who are dangerously mentally ill should be placed in a hospital, not sent home and ordered to get outpatient treatment, as Cho was.


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