Tag Archive for 'gun control'

Mental Health Patients Can Own Guns, Court Rules

It sounds like a crazy idea, but the Sixth Circuit has ruled that people committed to mental institutions may own a gun. Gun control proponents might believe the ruling is insane, but the decision is not as loony as it sounds.

mental health patient gun lawInsanity puns aside, the hero of our story is 73 year old Clifford Charles Tyler, a Michigan resident. In 2011, Tyler attempted to purchase a gun. He was denied after an FBI background check showed that he had been held at Ypsilanti Regional Center in 1985 for depression and suicide watch. Tyler was involuntary held at the Center for a month after his ex-wife of 23 years took all their money and left Tyler for another man.

However, Tyler left the Center completely healthy. He remarried in 1999, maintains good relations with his daughters from his first marriage, and has no criminal history before or after his stay at the Center. In fact, Tyler voluntarily underwent another psychological evaluation in 2012. According to the most recent evaluation, Tyler has not had another depressive episode since his divorce in 1985 and the psychologist reported that she could not find any evidence of mental illness in Tyler.

Why So Serious?

For those uninterested in the administrative jargon, Tyler was denied a firearms license because he was a former mental patient. Federal law gives Tyler the right to expunge that ban, but Congress had defunded the ability to make that appeal and Michigan declined to make such an appeals process itself. So where did that leave Tyler?

Tyler’s attorneys brought a lawsuit and the Sixth Circuit made their groundbreaking decision. The Appeals Court agreed that the government can prevent the mentally ill from obtaining a gun because of the risk of public injury. However, just because an individual was committed to a mental institution does not mean they are mentally ill. There might be overlap, but the fact that federal law prohibits both the mentally ill and people committed to mental institutions from possessing firearms means that Congress itself knew there was a distinction when they wrote the law. Although mentally ill people are outside the scope of the Second Amendment because of public safety concerns, the Court could not find a reason that a former patient like Tyler should be prohibited from being able to exercise his constitutional right.

Justice Is Ironic

The Court probably could have decided this case based on Due Process rather than the Second Amendment, but I think this decision reached the proper outcome. Most pundits would probably focus on what this case means for the NRA or for gun owners, but this is an unexpected victory for another group of people: mental health patients.

The Appeals Court didn’t get into why people committed to mental institutions were denied gun ownership. It’s obvious why mentally ill people are denied firearms, but what about regular people who just need mental health assistance? There has long been stereotyping and misunderstanding about people who see psychologists or seek mental health. People who are depressed or who are abusing substances are expected to deal with it, but are often discouraged from seeing experts about it. There is growing recognition that it’s OKAY to seek help for mental health issues. Obamacare requires that insurance companies include mental health services in their insurance coverage, but it’s not enough.

Prohibiting people committed to mental institutions from possessing a gun only made such stereotypes worse. Those stereotypes have prevented people from seeking out professional help before their mental health programs caused greater harm. If we can encourage people to seek professional health before their condition progresses too far, we can stop mass shootings while expanding our right to bear arms.

Supreme Court: It’s Illegal to Purchase a Gun on Behalf of Another Lawful Gun Owner

It’s hard being a middleman, especially if the federal government prosecutes the middleman for a legal transaction. Bruce Abramski, a former police officer, discovered this the hard way when he was misidentified as a bank robber. Although state prosecutors eventually dropped the investigation, federal prosecutors discovered a gun purchase receipt during a search of Abramski’s home. The receipt showed that Bruce had purchased a Glock 19 handgun for $400 on behalf of his uncle, Angel Alvarez.

bruce abramski gun purchase caseBruce had checked “yes” to a background check question asking if he was the “actual transferee/buyer” when he was purchasing the gun. Bruce then signed the form, acknowledging that it is a federal crime to make false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.” Lower courts dealt with the issue that Angel Alvarez was also a legal gun owner, casting doubt on whether the misstatement was legally relevant. The Supreme Court addressed the question of whether Congress intended to regulate third person gun purchases. In a 5-4 decision, the Court voted against Bruce, affirming his five year prison sentence.

Courts Should Not Fix Laws

As Justice Scalia said in his dissent, “The Court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner.” The majority of the Court does so because it sees a loophole that they feel should be closed. The law Bruce was prosecuted under makes it illegal for a person to make a material misstatement about the person’s attempted acquisition of a gun from a licensed dealer. The majority treated Bruce as an agent for his uncle, making the uncle the “person” who purchased the gun.

However, the background question, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer?” could be read as asking whether the person answering the question is the person paying for the gun, NOT whether the person purchasing the gun is an agent for another man or woman. Justice Scalia provided a perfect example: “So if I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say the store ‘sells’ the milk and eggs to me.” Answering the question this way does not interfere with Congress’s attempt to keep guns from “felons, fugitives, illegal drug-users and the mentally ill” because the actual gun owner is neither a felon nor mentally ill.

The fear is that if “agents” are allowed to purchase guns, then a felon could hire a delivery man to purchase the gun without having to go through a background check. That does seem like a clever workaround, but the law also requires there be a paper trail when a gun is transferred to another. Since Bruce had a receipt for the police to find, it’s clear that the law already has a method of tracking third person gun purchases.

Federal Overreach

Gun control proponents see this case as a victory. It is sad that any case involving firearms automatically devolves into an argument over the role of the Second Amendment. Gun control advocates might see this ruling as a win, but I see a man who is imprisoned without cause. When courts give federal laws more teeth than originally intended, we all lose.

Gun Control and Mental Illness

Following the recent shooting and stabbing rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the controversial subject of gun control is again being widely debated.

elliot rodger gun violence and mental illnessProponents of stricter gun control laws argue that if guns were less accessible, fewer people would be able to obtain them, resulting in less gun violence. However, tougher gun laws don’t always necessarily translate into less gun violence. For example, there is much gun violence in the District of Columbia, which has strict gun laws.

According to some studies, there are many other variables besides lax gun laws that contribute to increases in gun violence. One study found that the strongest indicators of gun violence are: the number of college graduates in a community, the number of working class residents, the presence of weapons in local high schools, and poverty.

The recent shooting at the UC Santa Barbara highlights another important factor: mental illness. Elliot Rodger, who was committed the six killings, was most likely suffering from some form of mental illness. His actions and statements leading up to the killing spree have been described as “pre-psychosis.”

Under federal law, individuals with mental illnesses are not allowed to possess guns. It is unlawful to sell a firearm to anyone who has been committed to a mental institution. Most states uphold similar laws.

In response to the UC Santa Barbara incident, it has been proposed that these laws should be expanded so that that friends and family members can request gun violence restraining orders. This type of law might have helped to stop Elliot Rodger, who was clearly showing signs of mental illness and the potential for violence.

Why the Gun Control Issue Is Absurd on Both Sides

On the topic of gun control, Americans completely lack common sense.

gun controlIn Washington, D.C., the nomination for Surgeon General is delayed because the candidate, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wrote on Twitter that guns are a healthcare issue. The nomination block is rather extreme given that most Surgeon Generals, including President Regan’s appointee, Everett Koop, believed guns were a healthcare issue. Actually, most medical associations, such as the American Medical Association, support gun regulation. Common sense dictates that guns are a healthcare risk. Shooting a bad guy will put the bad guy in poor health; that’s the very reason gun owners want guns for self-defense!

Of course, the 2nd Amendment is only a right if you’re an adult. Ten year old Nathan Entingh was suspended from school for three days for a “Level 2 Look Alike Firearm” – his fingers. Nathan had put his fingers up to another student’s head and said “Boom!” A teacher saw him and sent Nathan to the principal’s office. Ohio has a zero tolerance policy and students at Devonshire Alternative Elementary School had been repeatedly warned against gun related behavior.

What do these two stories have in common? In the former, Dr. Murthy is criticized for talking about guns. In the latter, Nathan and his fellow students are prohibited from engaging in gun related behavior, such as making paper guns. To overgeneralize for a moment, it seems as though nobody in the United States is allowed to talk about guns.

The context of each incident is completely different, of course. Dr. Murthy is in a job interview with the Senate while Nathan is playing around. The adult is being grilled because Senate Republicans, and some Democrats, believe they are protecting the 2nd Amendment. The NRA fears that an anti-gun right Surgeon General could do to guns what past Surgeon Generals have done to tobacco. Warning labels and public education campaigns about the health risks of tobacco have greatly restrained what the tobacco industry can do today.

Nathan was suspended because the school fears for student safety. I don’t have to mention the number of school massacres to show why Ohio has a zero tolerance policy on guns in schools. Many judges would probably defer to the school on matters of school safety, even if those same judges doubt that zero tolerance is the best approach.

In both cases, an institution seeks to protect something important. Gun rights advocates are trying to silence Dr. Murphy to protect gun rights. Gun restriction advocates want to silence students to protect student safety. It’s ironic that opposing sides of a debate have reached the same conclusion: they can win if everyone walks around on eggshells whenever the topic is brought up.

Still, it is extremely jarring to see a doctor attacked for a position most doctors hold and a ten year old boy punished for something most ten year old boys do.

Will Requiring Therapists To Report Violent Patients Make Us Safer?

There is a very cynical expression about politicians: they never let a tragedy go unused. The NRA and gun activists would accuse gun control proponents of using the Aurora and Newtown shootings of doing exactly that: using these tragic circumstances to advance their own political agenda. The right to bear arms is an important Constitutional right, but the public does not respond well to the massacre of innocent movie-goers and schoolchildren.

gunsGovernment reaction has been slow though, except for one part of the country: New York. Debates are being held across the country, but only New York has (so far) passed a law. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act” (SAFE) on January 15th, 2013.

The law has a number of new regulations for the Empire State. One provision requires universal background checks for all gun transfers except among immediate family members. Another provision deals with the killing of a “first responder” at a crime scene. The most interesting aspect of this new law, however, is the mandate to medical professionals, particularly mental health therapists, to report dangerous patients to state authorities. The state authorities would then check whether the patient owns any guns. If the patient does, the state can suspend the patient’s license and confiscate the weapons.

The mandate to medical professionals is the most interesting part of SAFE since it addresses the heart of the problem. Advocates of gun control often point to the fact that United States has significantly more gun-related killings than other nations. However, mass killings do occur in other nations; the difference is that cultures favor different weapons. For example, on the day of the Newtown massacre, December 14th, a man in Henan, China, also attacked school children, except the Henan attacker used a knife rather than a gun.

Gun control advocates would point out that none of the children in the Henan attack were killed. If psychotic killers were forced to use knives rather than guns, the victims might actually survive. The problem with that reasoning is that society cannot control the weapons would-be killers might use. If guns were banned, ignoring the Constitutional problem for arguments sake, mass killers might use less dangerous weapons like knives. Those same mass killers, however, could also use more dangerous weapons, such as bombs, just like in the 1927 Bath School Massacre. Rather than focus on the numerous means a man could spread death, I think focusing on the killers themselves is far more beneficial.

The issue, however, is can this actually prevent bloodshed. Therapists already have a duty to warn about dangerous patients, but they typically have flexibility in how to approach the situation. Therapists could report the patient to the police, warn possible victims, or recommend the patients be detained in mental institutions for treatment. SAFE, however, reduces therapist flexibility by requiring that therapists report the dangerous patient to state authorities in charge of monitoring gun ownership. SAFE does not preclude other safety options, but forcing the therapist to act in a particular manner might make patients less willing to disclose themselves to their therapist.

Would SAFE’s mandate actually prevent killings in the future though? Criminal background checks are useless, since neither the Aurora shooter nor the Newtown killer had a criminal record prior to their infamous acts. SAFE might have prevented the Aurora shooting though. The Aurora shooter had been seeing mental health professionals and most of his acquaintances agreed that the eventual movie theater slaughterer was mentally unstable and likely dangerous. He had also obtained all of his weapons legally.

On the other hand, SAFE would probably not have prevented the Newtown killings, which is ironic since the law is more a reaction to the deaths of the children than the movie-goers. Although the Newtown killer was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, Asperger is not known to cause the aggressive behavior the Newtown killer displayed in the weeks leading up to the attack. Moreover, the Newtown killer, who was twenty, had been turned away from purchasing a gun since he was not old enough to legally own a gun; Connecticut requires a gun owner to be 21 years or older.  The Newtown shooter got all his weapons from his mother, who legally owned the guns. However, she had been murdered by her own son prior to the rampage. Given that SAFE only confiscates the patient’s weapons and that gun transfers between immediate family members are exempted from state scrutiny, the law is hardly bulletproof.

Gun right proponents might read SAFE and shudder. Gun right supporters have often opposed gun registries, since registration could be a slippery slope to confiscation. The SAFE act seems to justify this fear. At the same time though, one of the arguments against gun control is that gun control violates the rights of law-abiding citizens while gun control is completely ignored by the “bad guys.” Although SAFE affects every gun owner in New York, the provision about medical professionals at least tries to limit itself to the mentally unstable. The lack of predictability in results, however, might give the citizens of New York a false sense of security.