Gun Nuts

'Nashville Scene' says state not reporting mentally unstable to gun check system

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Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

States are supposed to voluntarily report to the FBI the names of people ordered to receive psychiatric care by a judge. This information is supposed to be entered into a federal database to prevent these people from purchasing a gun.

A problem arises in that many states do not bother to keep the database up to date. This would include Virginia. Seung Hui Cho, who killed the students at Virginia Tech, legally bought a handgun to use in his slaughter even though he had a history of mental illness and had been ordered by a judge to submit to a psychiatric evaluation. His name was not in the federal database.

Tennessee also neglects to report this information to the FBI. Jeff Woods, of the Nashville Scene , reports that no state agency is reporting the information and none seems interested in doing so. Most states plead poverty to avoid participation in the background check program.

The U.S. House has passed a bill, pending in the Senate, which provides $250 million to the states to pay for reporting the information for the background checks for the next three years.

State Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, had a bill this past session that allowed people with a gun-carry permit to carry them in state parks. He prepared an amendment, which requires the state of Tennessee to report the names of people committed to psychiatric care by a judge. They would be entered into the federal database for the instant background check and rejected if they attempt to by a gun.

We should all be leery (especially political columnists) of the FBI compiling a list of the mentally ill. But if a person has had due process and has been ordered to receive treatment, it seems reasonable they should not be allowed to stroll into a gun shop and purchase a pistol.

Since Niceley is a Republican, the Democrats added poisoned pills to the legislation and buried it in committee. The amendment is prepared but will not been added until it is put on notice for action next year. Given the prospect of federal money coming along, and that next year is an election year, expect the bill to be revived.

State Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, had the Senate version of Niceley's bill, but without the amendment for reporting to the database. He withdrew his bill after a Democratic poison pill amendment to allow guns on the floor of the Senate and House.

The bill in the U.S. Congress was negotiated by senior Democrats like U.S. Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan, and the National Rifle Association. It's the first gun control legislation to pass since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, and it was spurred by the Virginia Tech massacre. In return for supporting the Democrat's bill, the NRA won some concessions. People with minor infractions can get their name out of the database. A veteran diagnosed by the service as having a mental problem but without a finding the person is dangerous or mentally incompetent would not be placed on the list. The bill also provides a procedure for people to follow to get off the list.

The Washington Post reports the bill asks states to file an audit with the U.S. attorney general of all the criminal cases, mental health adjudications and court-ordered drug treatments that have not been filed with the instant-check system. The feds would then pick up 90 percent of the cost if the state completes it within 180 days.

One suspects state bureaucracies will not voluntarily jump onto this 180-day requirement without state legislation mandating that it happen.

The bill has gotten criticism from civil libertarians fearful it would include anyone who has been treated for psychological problems. Some gun owners are opposed to even having a federal database for background checks. There may be an effort to try and kill the bill in the Senate. But the bill passed the House on a voice vote, there being no significant opposition. The Democratic imprimatur seems to reassure civil libertarians. The NRA's stamp of approval should satisfy most gun owners. It awaits Senate action.

The Tennessee bill needs to be passed next session and require state agencies to get with the database program. We can just hope we don't have some deranged individual buy a gun and shoot up one of our campuses in the meantime.

Last week WVLT reported a story about a Morgan County man released from a mental facility who took a gun, shot up his house and truck and, after a standoff with police, committed suicide.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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