Gun laws won’t work until nation’s mental health ‘non-system’ does

The mass shootings that are becoming almost routine in national headlines are spurring many to critique and criticize the nation’s mental health care system — or non-system — and demand that background checks include applicant’s history of mental illness.

A 1968 federal law prohibits handgun sales to those who’ve been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. The problem is that the procedures that call for involuntary commitments vary widely between states, creating confusion and information gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

For instance, John Russell Houser had a decade of documented mental health issues in Georgia on his record, but that did not surface during the NICS check when he purchased a handgun from an Alabama pawn shop in 2014 that he used to shoot 11 people, killing two, on July 23 in Lafayette, La.

Three states, three different sets of laws for evaluating an individual’s mental health, imposing involuntary observation and reporting the results to various state and federal agencies, including the NICS.

Despite family members’ warnings about his bipolar disorder and imminent danger to others, the Georgia judge who reviewed Houser’s mental health status during a decade of court proceedings, said state law precluded him from doing nothing beyond recommend Houser undergo a mental health evaluation, which he did not volunteer to do.

Judge Marc E. D’Antonio told the Washington Post that involuntary commitment could have alerted state and national law agencies to the danger Houser posed to himself and others: “If he had been adjudicated in need of involuntary treatment, I would have reported that to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who would then send it to the FBI,” he said. “I clearly would have known. That did not happen.”

There are, of course, a wide range of concerns regarding involuntary commitment. Fears of abuse, of people who are not necessarily struggling with mental health problems being involuntarily committed, are justified. Concerns about breeches in privacy that could affect employment, child custody and other matters often prevent those dealing with mental health issues from seeking help.

It’s also a matter of money. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, fewer than 8 percent of American adults receive mental health care, most of which is paid for by private insurance. Although low-income adults, children and the elderly people can access mental health services through Medicare and Medicaid, out-of-pocket costs for inpatient and outpatient care—especially in non-Medicaid expansion states—preclude many from seeking help. Even with the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, in many states, demand for treatment among the mentally ill has outpaced he capacity to provide it.

Many argue that tackling this issue will require lawmakers to prioritize improving the U.S. mental health care system. But that will be easier said than done. In 2008, the Republican-controlled House voted 145-47 against the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which would require insurance providers to treat mental health services like those for physical health.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) recently told CBS News that his GOP colleagues need to more seriously focus on mental health. If the 2013 compromise background bill that he co-sponsored with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa,) had passed, it would have required that any indication of a mental health issue — such as the mental health review that Houser underwent in Georgia — be included in the NICS check.

“It’s not gun control,” Manchin said, “it’s just saying that, listen, if you go to a gun show, commercial transaction, we need to know who you are and if you’ve had a problem before, if you’ve been criminal or a mental problem.”

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Democrats call on retailers, firearms dealers to do away with ‘default sales’

If Walmart can refuse to sell guns without a completed background check, other retailers and firearm dealers can do so also.

That was the challenge issued by Connecticut senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, along with 11 fellow Democrats, during a July 28 Capitol Hill press conference in which they urged three large firearms dealers—Cabela’s, EZ Pawn and Bass Pro Shops—to stop allowing “default sales” and, like Walmart, refuse to sell guns without a completed background check.

Under federal law, if a gun background check is not completed within three days of an attempted purchase, the transaction can proceed regardless of whether the buyer should be prohibited. Walmart has chosen for more than a decade to require completion of background checks, but many other retailers don’t. The lapse has been blamed for Dylann Roof’s acquisition of a weapon he allegedly used in the Charleston, S.C., church shooting that left nine dead.

According to Blumenthal and Murphy, 15,729 firearms have been sold to “prohibited people” because of the 72-hour law. They did not indicate the time span these purchases allegedly occurred, nor did they cite a source that verified the numbers.

“For the gun dealers of America, why not do the right thing? Insist that there be a background check before you sell the gun,” Blumenthal said during the press conference. He also encouraging support for a proposed federal bill banning illegal firearms trafficking and straw purchases, and called for taking steps to address the nation’s mental health system.

There is “absolutely no justification” for retailers not to follow Walmart’s lead, Murphy said during the press conference, arguing that it causes “no inconvenience to the retailer” to perform safer background checks to ensure that criminals or mentally ill people do not walk out of their stores with a gun.

“The temporary inconvenience to a smidgen of gun purchases is certainly worth the lives that we know we could have saved or can save in the future if retailers make this change,” Murphy said.

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L.A. bans large-capacity ammunition magazines, invites lawsuits

The Los Angeles City Council on July 28 voted unanimously to ban the possession of firearm magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, prompting the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups to vow they’ll challenge the measure in court because, they say, it violates the 2nd Amendment and preempts state law.

“If the NRA wants to sue us over this, bring it on,” L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian said outside City Hall after the vote.

California law already bans the manufacture, sale and import of large-capacity magazines into the state. However, it does not prohibit people from possessing them, a “loophole” the city council addressed with its new law.

“People who want to defend their families don’t need a 100-round drum magazine and an automatic weapon to do it,” said Krekorian, apparently unaware that personal possession of automatic weapons has been banned since the 1930s.

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Federal court refuses to reopen Florida ‘Docs vs Glocks’ case

A federal court on July 28 rejected a request by a physician’s lobbying group to reconsider its challenge of Florida’s Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act that bans health care workers from asking about patient’s firearms, lifting a long-standing injunction.

A Miami U.S. District Court, in what became known as the “Docs vs. Glocks” case, blocked the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott after adoption by the state legislature in 2011.

Last July, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed true lower court decision in a 2-1 ruling after finding, “the Act is a valid regulation of professional conduct that has only incidental effect on physicians’ speech.”

Physician lobby organizations, represented by attorneys from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, had asked the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for en banc review by the full Circuit of the panel’s finding. However, the court rejected the review in a 152-page ruling of the plaintiffs arguments in the case of Wollschlaeger v. Governor of the State of Florida.

The court ruled that Florida’s law does not absolutely prohibit doctors from speaking about firearms, It allows health care workers to ask questions if they feel they are directly relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety. Anything else, the panel reiterated in the same 2-1 decision they held last year, was improper.

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