A very non-standard request the board once reviewed came to mind after yesterday’s tragedy in Connecticut, though.
One beneficiary of the trust requested funding to purchase a rifle, along with personalized modifications to his wheelchair he would thought would help him use the weapon. His spinal cord injury reduced muscular control of his arms, and his hands regularly shook. The modifications were for a circular brace to be mounted on his wheelchair’s armrest, into which he could insert the barrel of the weapon. With these modifications, he could safely take up the hobby of hunting, the applicant said. (Of course, while the brace might help control any aim-damaging wiggle, the user would have to be in perfect alignment with his target, both horizontally and vertically, in order for it to be any good.)
The advisory board of this still-new trust fund was taken aback. It hadn’t anticipated receiving requests like this. Funding of a wheelchair ramp? Sure, that was expected. But to fund the purchase of a weapon for someone incapable of controlling it, not even with the make-shift, untested accommodation also requested? Nobody saw that one coming.
I spoke about the situation with a couple of police officers I knew in my then-hometown of New Orleans, hoping to get some insight that would provide me with a law-based argument to deny the request. Are there any laws that restrict weapon sales to persons who might be physically compromised in their safe operation, I asked.
One sighed and the other laughed. There is no such law, it turns out. “A person who is blind and has no arms can legally buy a gun,” I was told.
I kept recalling that conversation yesterday while watching news about the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Early reports say shooter Adam Lanza may have had Asperger syndrome, a developmental disability that some studies infer could be relevant to violent behavior.
While there are no gun restrictions pertaining to physical handicaps, there are laws that are supposed to prevent gun sales to mentally disabled persons. The problem, though, is that these laws don’t work.
18 USC § 922 makes it illegal to sell a gun to anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.”
Note the limitation; the mental deficiency must be documented by the state for the law to be applicable. As a result, you can have life-long addiction to antidepressants and think you’re the Easter Bunny – but you can still buy a weapon until a judge or crazy shack rules you nuts.
Even if a judge does declare you mentally incompetent, it’s still very likely that you can get a gun. Forty-three states aren’t reporting all of their relevant mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (or “NICS”), according to the “Fatal Gaps” report issued last year by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
In fact, 23 states had reported less than 100 mental health rulings since NICS went into effect in 1999, the Oct. 2011 study found. Seventeen states had submitted fewer than 10 cases, and four didn’t offer any at all.
A case-in-point to the effects of this deficiency is the tragic 2007 incident at Virginia Tech, when 32 were killed and another 17 wounded. Less than two years prior, shooter Seung Hui Cho was ruled mentally incompetent and subsequently hospitalized for evaluation and therapy. The court records were never reported to NICS, though. Cho was able to pass background checks when he purchased weapons on two occasions just a couple of months before the massacre.
South Carolina’s compliance with the law seems weak, as well. The unidentified official who provided the state’s data to the study said South Carolina has no system to collect relevant information. Only 17 cases were reported in 13 years, and the only way the state learned of these mentally-incompetent court rulings was when those 17 applied for concealed weapons permits; they already had guns.
The state’s agencies aren’t willing to provide the needed records, the unnamed source said, and even though South Carolina has its own law very similar to the U.S. Code (restricting anyone “adjudicated mentally incompetent” from owning or buying a weapon). Also, South Carolina has not passed any law pertaining to NICS compliance, Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ study reports.
The lack of that law to report, both here and in other states, only compounds the problem. While federally-licensed gun dealers are required to comply with NICS, states aren’t required to provide the records that NICS needs to determine if an ineligible purchase should be completed.
Even if state compliance with NICS improved, unlicensed dealers at gun shows don’t have to proceed with background checks prior to sale, which allows the mentally disturbed and even people convicted of violent crime to buy weapons on the spot.
This doesn’t mean that NICS is dysfunctional. In a 12-year period ending in 2010, it had blocked 6,103 firearm sales to persons with recorded mental illnesses. That’s nine needed denials every week despite the very low record of state compliance in reporting.
But if it was completely honored as intended, think of how many lives could have been saved, like the 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007. And maybe – just maybe, since early reports say the weapons were licensed to Lanza’s mother – the 26 lost at Sandy Hook Elementary.
The laws would still have to be improved, though. Remember, restrictions aren’t applied based on a diagnosis, but only if a legal ruling on one’s mental incapacity has been issued and recorded.
But why should it be so hard to stop it from being so easy for an incapable person to get a weapon? We have many other laws pertaining to qualifications and registrations and authorizations, and which are enforced for public safety.
In order to get a driver’s license, for example, I had to complete driver’s ed. And then I had to take a written test, a driving test and even a vision test, all of which I have to periodically do all over again just to make sure I still know the laws and can still safely operate a vehicle.
My license can be suspended if I break too many driving laws. I need special license to operate commercial vehicles of particular size, and there are some, like combat vehicles, that I could never own or operate.
Even my car is subject to regulation. It must be of a minimum safety standard (although South Carolina doesn’t, most other states require annual review of individual vehicle safety compliance). I also need minimum insurance.
To own a gun, though, I don’t need tests or training to ensure my proper use. No license, unless I want a concealed-carry permit. No periodic license renewals or reviews to make sure I’m still eligible and capable throughout my ownership. No periodic review of my weapon’s safety, no insurance required to cover any damages I might cause, and I can even own many military firearms.
I only need to pass an initial screening of very incomplete records. And since those records are so poorly maintained, not to mention irregularly reported to NICS, I’d have little to worry about even if a judge had ever ruled me mentally incompetent.
As for the guy who requested the trust fund to pay for a weapon, and for the modification to his wheelchair which he hoped would make him capable to use that weapon? The advisory board never approved it, even though there was no law against him or any other physically-incapable person from having a gun. From what I recall, the applicant was told it wouldn’t meet intended goals of the trust fund, and he didn’t contest.
But as for the mentally-incapable folks who can still get a gun so easily? There still isn’t enough law to prevent it.