Yesterday’s mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, the second at that location in five years, shocked and appalled us, and our heart goes out to all the people touched by the tragedy. Like the shooter in so many of the recent mass shootings that we as a nation have witnessed, Ivan Lopez had previously been identified as having severe mental health problems, but he still had access to the gun he used in the shooting. Once again, we are faced with the possibility that commonsense laws could have prevented this tragedy. As a result, this shooting only increases our determination to address the legal loopholes that provide access to firearms by dangerous people.
The good news is there is something we can all do right now to help address this problem. In January, the Obama Administration proposed a new rule that will prevent certain dangerously mentally ill people from obtaining access to firearms. The new rule will help states identify the groups of people that are ineligible to purchase or possess guns under federal law, so that they can be reported to the background check system. While this new rule may not have prevented this particular shooting, it will certainly decrease the risk of similar tragedies.
Federal law prohibits a person from purchasing or possessing guns if he or she has been “committed to a mental institution” or “adjudicated a mental defective.” Until now, many states have been confused about which groups of people are ineligible to purchase or possess guns based on these terms, since the federal law and ATF’s current regulations do not provide much guidance. As a result, many states have not reported the proper people to the database used for firearm purchaser background checks.
In April 2007, this confusion directly resulted in another mass shooting, when Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 others before committing suicide on the college campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. A Virginia special justice had declared Mr. Cho to be “an imminent danger” to himself as a result of mental illness on December 14, 2005, and ordered Mr. Cho to seek outpatient treatment. However, Cho was able to purchase firearms through two licensed dealers after two background checks. While Virginia law at that time required that some mental health records be submitted to the databases used for background checks, it did not require reporting of people committed as outpatients because of confusion about whether the federal law applied.
While many states altered their laws to require the reporting of people like Mr. Cho in the years since Virginia Tech, some states still do not report people committed as outpatients. In fact, as of May 2013, 15 states had each identified less than 100 people that should be prohibited from purchasing a gun on the basis of mental illness altogether. The proposed rule will help change this situation, by clarifying that people who have been ordered by a court to obtain mental health treatment as outpatients are ineligible to purchase or possess firearms under the federal law. People who have been determined to be “incompetent to stand trial” or “guilty but mentally ill” in a criminal case will also be ineligible under the proposed rule. These changes will help prevent people like Seung-Hui Cho from obtaining access to firearms, and will help prevent tragedies like Virginia Tech and Fort Hood.
Public comments on this proposed rule will only be accepted through Monday, April 7. The Law Center applauds the Administration’s efforts to reduce access to firearms by the dangerously mentally ill. Join the Law Center in supporting these efforts by expressing your approval for the proposed rule on the federal regulatory portal here: http://bit.ly/MentalHealthEA.