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.