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States Allow the Mentally Ill to Regain Gun Rights

States Allow the Mentally Ill to Regain Gun Rights

Across the country, states are beginning to allow people who lost their gun rights because of mental illness to petition to have them restored.  Although a handful of states had such laws on the books for years, since 2008 more than 20 states have passed similar measures.  Ironically, Michael Luo writes for the New York Times, the flood of gun-restoration laws began with a piece of legislation passed by Congress in 2007 which was designed, in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, to make it more difficult for people with mental illnesses to access guns.  The NRA forced legislators to add a concession which would allow people who had their gun rights revoked to petition for restoration.

The states say that they want to make sure that no one who is a threat to public safety can obtain firearms.  But in practice, the decision about who should have their gun rights restored is patchily enforced.  According to Luo, “states have mostly entrusted these decisions to judges, who are often ill-equipped to conduct investigations from the bench. Many seemed willing to simply give petitioners the benefit of the doubt. The results often seem haphazard.”

These concerns seem even more pressing in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, as people question how the government should act in the intersection between gun violence and mental illness.  Although, as both gun rights supporters and mental illness experts are quick to assert, many people with mental illness are not violent, Luo explains that the NYT‘s investigation found “multiple instances” in which people won back their gun rights, only to be convicted of violent, gun-related crimes.

Some states, like New York,  have set stricter standards for restoration.  They require assessments by mental health experts and an extensive review of medical records.  In many cases, though, restorations by states are not reported to the FBI.  One problem is that few states have gained federal money to improve their reporting standards.

The issue seems to come down to how well officials can predict violence.  ”Dealing with somebody who suffers from severe mental illness and mixing that with firearms, you really have to cross the t’s and dot the i’s,” said Richard J. Vagnozzi, a deputy district attorney in California who handles these cases.  The process, he says, “isn’t perfect, but we do the best we can with the available data and what we’re allowed to do.”

The horror stories are truly horrifying.  What gun rights advocates seem to be forgetting is that having a gun carries a significant amount of responsibility.  Access to firearms is not an inalienable right, it’s a serious social liability.  There are some people who are proven to have mental illness and may not misuse guns.  But authorities need to be more than completely sure that people who have access to guns can use them responsibly before they give them to anyone – much less people who have been legally denied their gun rights.  This Fourth of July, with all of our talk about rights and freedoms, let’s remember that being an American also involves an obligation to preserve the safety of our country and communities.  And that means erring on the side of caution when it comes to dispensing gun rights.

Photo from Phanatic’s Flickr photostream.

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12:09PM PDT on Apr 26, 2013

Martha E., this country is making full of itself, because part of its people is a bunch of gun-nuts who believe they have the right to own ANY gun. They totally forget the fact they live in a society and that any civilized society MUST to have rules in order to protect everyone, not only them! A bunch of egocentric people, that's what they are!

11:57AM PDT on Apr 26, 2013

"...let’s remember that being an American also involves an obligation to preserve the safety of our country and communities".

Oh, not those who have received money from the NRA, right??

12:18PM PDT on Apr 23, 2013

Let's skip our meds and go buy a gun! {head desk}

11:23PM PDT on Apr 22, 2013

We should be aware that there are such ignorance about "mental illness" that many legislators do not understand what it is or the treatments. Restoration of rights is a good thing in a place where we condemn people to 3rd class living. Remember we also can use these rulings to end homelessness and fight poverty.
Guns are tools and like any tool in the hands of the ignorant untrained and immature are just and dangerous as any other power tool.

4:22AM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

In my country every person who wants to have a right to bear gun is obligated to have a license for it. I think it could be a good idea to preventing persons mentally ill being armed by doing psychological tests and giving out a license.

11:24PM PST on Nov 7, 2011

Elizabeth K- it appears that you & I agree on something almost completely. Well, other than animal welfare issues :-) My only prob w/what you said was the mentally ill part. "Mentally ill" is relative. Some people consider anyone who's ever been even temporarily depressed, to be mentally ill. Someone who has recognized that they have a psychological problem & admitted themselves to impatient treatment- would they be deemed mentally ill? Not in my book. They're mentally competent enough to recognize their disfunction & are trying to seek treatment. And, there are violent mentally ill people & non-violent... Many people think that post war veterans should not be allowed weapons b/c of possible ptsd- of course I'm sure you know that. But I'm sincerely glad to see that you're not one of those anti-gun nuts...

Gary A L- I'm afraid it's a bit too late. Ignorance is bliss for most people.

7:18PM PST on Nov 7, 2011

This country is an embarrassment in the court of world opinion. We are ruled by prejudice, religious fear, insane feelings of the "right" to a gun. We have more murders and accidental shootings than anywhere else in the world. Pathetic.

10:57AM PDT on Oct 5, 2011

I know that this is an old article, but...wow. I have social anxiety disorder. I have physical symptoms of anxiety in social and stressful situations. I would never hurt anyone, and my timid nature would actually stop me from shooting someone unless it was to save my life. I can't believe that people on this site are so ignorant about mental illness. Why would you take away my right to defend myself just because my hands shake while speaking?

2:50PM PDT on Aug 5, 2011

The odd 69. I'm of course talking about the 69 that voted no/leaning no. I take it none of them has ever been in a situation where someone have used a gun on them or a relative or a friend.
I guess all the school shootings, shootings at workplaces and shopping malls and politicial meetings, etc, has passed them by. Guns DO kill people!
There are also numerous instances when children have killed other children, even siblings, with guns owned by their relatives; parents, grandparents. And accidental shootings when someone thinks there's an intruder, fires only to discover they shot the teenager trying to sneak in at night.
We haven't, unfortunately, seen the last massmurder by gunshots happening yet. Mentally unstable, criminals and underaged are still able to get hold of guns illegally, but why not make it more difficult for them by enforcing and tighten existing laws and make sure that guns already owned are properly secured and that the owners know how to use them.
I voted Yes in the poll.

3:53AM PDT on Jul 28, 2011

Voted Yes.

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