The Difficulty Of Firearm Background Checks For Psychological Problems

November 27th, 2013


Following a mass shooting by a person who is mentally disturbed, there is usually movement to try to prevent those, with psychological problems who are prone to violence, from owning firearms. This is an eminently reasonable position. I have written that those who have shown a propensity for violence have a much higher burden to exercise their Second Amendment rights. But how are we to know who has this propensity?

The Sandy Hook Report contributes to this discussion. Adam Lanza, who spent time with mental health professionals, was not flagged as a violent person. Reason sums it up succinctly:

Nor was there evidence that Lanza himself was prone to violence. “Those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior,” the report says. “Investigators…have not discovered any evidence that the shooter voiced or gave any indication to others that he intended to commit such a crime.”

Lanza did not have the sort of psychiatric (or criminal) history that would have disqualified him from owning firearms, which is one reason strengthening the background check system for gun buyers makes no sense as a response to the Sandy Hook massacre.

In other words, even if the psychological background checks were in place in Connecticut, nothing would have stopped Lanza from buying a gun. He did see mental health professionals, but none pegged him as violent. (Plus, the firearms he used were his mother’s and were lawfully acquired.)

Now, you may say, we should err on the side of caution. But there is a serious potential over-breadth problem. How do we ensure that anyone with mental health issues, but has no proclivity to harming others, is not unduly denied their right? Further, if a person is discouraged from seeking mental health treatment, or holds back information, out of fear of losing his rights, that would be a serious detriment to his or her treatment (similar to the Docs with Glocks case). I’ve read that some mental health groups were concerned after Sandy Hook that their members would be stigmatized and ostracized for seeking help.

These are all very, very difficult issues to discuss.