Misfires: Tennessee's Gun-Control Deficiencies and Anomalies

One gun control measure strongly favored by public opinion and supported by the National Rifle Association would require background checks on all gun purchases. Presently, only sales by federally licensed firearms dealers are subject to these checks, and an estimated 40 percent of all transactions are exempt.

The trouble is that the system for determining whether a prospective purchaser is prohibited from possessing a firearm is widely reported to be flawed. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (known as NICS) on which gun dealers rely is reportedly quite good at identifying some categories of people who are banned, including convicted felons and illegal aliens. But according to a report entitled "Fatal Gaps" by the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, "Records on serious mental health and drug problems that also disqualify people from gun ownership have proven more difficult to capture."

The FBI, which maintains NICS, relies on state and local law enforcement agencies and courts for most of its records. But in too many cases, adjudications are going unreported or slipping between the cracks.

According to this same report, "Seventeen states have submitted fewer than 10 mental health records, and four states have not submitted any records." Moreover, "Even though federal regulations establish that a failed drug test, single drug-related arrest or admission of drug use within the past year temporarily disqualify a person from possessing a gun, the vast majority of states are unaware that these records should be sent to NICS."

By way of contrast, Virginia leads the nation with some 80,000 mental health records reported. The impetus for most of them arose from the 2007 mass murder of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech by an individual who was the subject of court-ordered treatment for mental illness (albeit as an outpatient).

Tennessee ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack with 3,142 mental health records reported to NICS as of October 2011. Most of these followed the state Legislature's enactment in 2009 of a law requiring the state's courts to make quarterly reports to NICS of individuals "adjudicated as a mental defective" whose definition includes anyone with a "mental illness" who "is a danger to such person or to others." However, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report goes on to assert that "The pace of records submission to NICS is slow in part because state officials receive records haphazardly, by paper, fax or email, and Tennessee lacks funding to automate its records."

Quixotically, the same session of the state Legislature enacted what was dubbed the "Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act." According to a federal directive to "All Tennessee Federal Firearms Licensees… The Act purports to exempt personal firearms, firearms accessories, and ammunition manufactured in the State, and which remain in the State, from most Federal firearms laws and regulations. However, because the Act conflicts with Federal firearms laws and regulations, Federal law supersedes the Act."

Just as strangely, the Legislature undertook a Tennessee expansion of the categories of persons whom the federal Gun Control Act prohibits from possessing firearms to include persons "who are addicted to alcohol." State law offers no definition of what constitutes such addiction. So the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is supposed to enforce the ban, has dubiously opted to apply "the same standards for determining addiction to alcohol as are used for dangerous drugs/controlled substances." These include "A person convicted for use or possession of alcohol within the past year."

A TBI spokesperson is unable to say how many gun-purchase rejections have resulted or for what offenses (DUI and public intoxication are the only two that come to mind). But my guess is next to none. And this is reinforced by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report that only five substance-abuse records, for which TBI is also responsible, have been reported to NICS.

While I'm generally supportive of more restrictive firearms laws, it's anything but clear to me that a simple alcohol-related offense, or even possession of a small amount of marijuana, should preclude someone from being able to own a gun (legally, that is).

I'm also skeptical how effective universal background checks would be in preventing horrific mass murders or the other sorts of wanton gun violence that plagues our land. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to close the loopholes that allow their perpetrators to acquire any type of weapon today unchecked from anyone other than a licensed gun dealer.