If theres one thing that gun-law advocates and opponents can agree on, its that people who are dangerously mentally ill should not be allowed to buy, own and brandish firearms.
But the New York Times reported this week that police in many states are almost powerless to keep firearms out of the hands of potentially threatening individuals.
For instance, the newspaper cited the case of a Connecticut psychiatric patient who gone off his medications and had threatened to shoot his mother if authorities tried to take the 18 rifles and shotguns he kept at her house. Police seized the weapons.
But though Connecticut laws were strengthened after the Newtown shooting last year, authorities will have to give back the guns and their high-capacity magazines this spring. Authorities in other jurisdictions around the country told the Times they often have little choice but to return firearms to the people theyve seized them from after threatening incidents.
Indianas laws are stronger than most. In 2004, an Indianapolis man – whose guns had been seized and returned a few months earlier – killed his mother and a police officer and wounded several other officers before he was shot to death. In response, the legislature passed a law enabling police to retain weapons seized from someone who seems to be endangering others.
An Indiana Court of Appeals decision in August affirmed that option. Last year, police seized almost 50 firearms from the home of a mentally ill man who was carrying handguns and surveilling a Bloomington bar with a range-finder. Robert Redington told police he had the gift or prophecy and planned to avenge Lauren Spierer, an Indiana University student who had disappeared after drinking at the bar he was watching.
But the Times found what it called a significant loophole in Indianas law enabling police to seize handguns from people who are deemed dangerously mentally ill: There is nothing preventing them from going out and buying new guns. Officials from the Indiana Supreme Court told the Times records from gun-confiscation cases are not entered into the FBIs National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which gun dealers must check before selling a firearm.
Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, who for five years headed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said it appears there is nothing in the Indiana law that would preclude the state from reporting such cases to NICS.
When guns are seized, Helmke said, the law provides for a court hearing within 14 days. If the court determines a person is dangerous and upholds the seizure of weapons, Helmke said, there appears to be nothing that bars the state from adding the persons name to the federal dont-sell list. If you have enough to take (someones) guns away, you ought to be able to send the records.
Most mentally ill people are not dangerous, and even dealing with the few who are will not, of course, end the gun-violence problems. As Helmke noted, as many as 40 percent of all gun sales are through gun shows or other private transactions, allowing a potentially dangerous person to buy a gun even if his or her name is on the NICS list.
But why leave a loophole like this unsealed? If indeed those records arent being sent in, the Indiana Supreme Court or, if need be, the legislature could remedy that quickly.