Gun Rights and Crazy People

We have laws preventing the sales of gun to crazy people. We're not enforcing them very well.

Reflecting on the Tuscon shootings, Thomas Ricks asks,

At what point does the right to own a firearm begin to impinge on other people’s rights?

OK, try it this way: At what point does the right of crazy people to buy weapons begin to seem crazy?

Arizona, like every other state, has laws denying the right of crazy people to buy guns.  The trouble is that we often don’t know people are crazy until they go out and shoot people.  And, of course, even when we have strong reason to suspect that people are crazy — as was the case with the shooter here there’s still a matter of Constitutionally protected rights to due process.

WSJ has an informative article (“Massacre Renews Focus on Gun Buys“) on just this issue in today’s edition. Some excerpts:

Under federal and Arizona law, a mentally ill person is barred from purchasing a gun if a court has deemed that person a danger. And in hindsight, there is evidence of Mr. Loughner’s disturbed mental state.

At Pima Community College, Mr. Loughner had five contacts with campus police. The school suspended him last year and said he couldn’t return unless he obtained clearance from a mental-health professional that indicated his presence wouldn’t pose a danger to himself or others.

But a federal law-enforcement official on Sunday said there was no evidence Mr. Loughner had been under any court-ordered treatment, which is one clear route to barring someone from buying a gun. Officials said he bought his gun legally Nov. 30 at a Tucson outdoor-sports store after a full background check [emphasis mine – jhj].

“You can be diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and buy a gun,” said an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “A judge has to find you mentally ill before you are prohibited.”

Nor is this the first case in recent memory:

In the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, which resulted in the deaths of 33 people, gunman Seung-Hui Cho had been considered dangerous by a court and ordered to get outpatient treatment. That information wasn’t forwarded to the federal database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation used by gun stores in conducting background checks, and should have stopped him from buying a gun.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Congress passed a law providing financial incentives to encourage states to submit such court records.

Other recent shootings have brought few changes. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, awaiting trial after a 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, passed a background check to buy a pistol at a Texas gun shop even though he was on terrorism investigators’ radar for contacting a radical Islamist cleric. Such information doesn’t show up in background checks. In the wake of the shooting, which killed 13 people, legislation restricting gun sales to people involved in terror probes failed to pass.

Mr. Loughner was arrested for drug possession in 2007; the case was “dismissed with prejudice” and further details of the arrest weren’t available Sunday. Under federal law, people addicted to a controlled substance are prohibited from buying a gun, said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. But the addiction would have to be reported to the relevant state or federal database.

The problem, it would seem, isn’t that our current gun laws are inadequate but that we’re inadequately enforcing our current gun laws.

FILED UNDER: Guns and Gun Control, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tano says:

    “The problem, it would seem, isn’t that our current gun laws are inadequate but that we’re inadequately enforcing our current gun laws.”

    I don’t quite follow James. Isn’t the fact that we cannot prevent these people from buying guns a function of the law itself, not simply the enforcement? If you need a judge to certify a shizo as mentally ill, – that is a matter of law, not of enforcement. And if guys like this could be entered in a database, and then fail a background check, aren’t they still able to buy weapons, without any hindrance nor need to register, from other individuals (i.e. non-dealers)? This too is a problem with the law, not with the enforcement of existing laws.

  2. wr says:

    It was the Republicans in congress — working under the orders of the NRA — who fought to make sure that those on the terrorist watch list could buy as many guns as they wanted.

  3. Janis Gore says:

    I haven’t seen anything so far on whether Loughner ever had a psychiatric evaluation. Complaints and recommendations, but follow-through? Someone?

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Tano: You’re right that there are still loopholes. But we’re not even doing the things we’re required to do now. I’m happy to close loopholes as well as beef up compliance, of course.

    @wr: A quick Google search doesn’t tell me much. Peter King and others were working to close the loophole in June and the NRA opposed on grounds that these people are mere “suspects.”

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    WR, judging by your writings here, you should surely be denied the right to buy or own a gun. However, since that is just my opinion and not that of someone who has the authority to declare you incompetent. You are still able to buy the means to defend yourself. I have a serious question for you WR. Which law has prevented a crime? Tick, tick, tick. I am waiting. The congress passed a law which became an amendment to the Constitution banning the use of alcohol. How did that work out? Laws do nothing to prevent acts they only provide punishment for those who do those acts, or they make criminals out of people who have done no wrong outside of breaking some unnecessary law. The Arizona shooter has a history of instablity. His parents should have done something, the schools he went to should have done something, but they did not.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    In 2006, Derek W. Potts, stopped taking his meds for a bi-polar disorder, and then one day set out to attack the Illinois State Capitol. His diagnosis precluded him from getting a FOID card, so he stole a shotgun from an army surplus store, and went to the capitol, where he killed a security guard.

    Illinois has arguably the toughest gun control laws in the country.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    Janis Gore, there does not appear to have been any psychiatric evaluation, but the evidence out there would indicate that he is probably pschotic. Here is a list of the main factors:

    * deteriorating social functioning (for example, spending increasing amounts of time alone in one’s room, doing nothing);

    * a family history of psychosis combined with recent decline in ability to function (such as a drop in grades not explained by other factors or an unexplained withdrawal from extracurricular school activities);

    * increase in unusual thoughts (such as thinking that strangers’ conversations are about oneself);

    * increase in suspicion/paranoia (such as suspicion of being followed); and

    * past or current drug abuse.

    I don’t think we know family history, but the rest seems applicable.

  8. Janis Gore says:

    Oh, I’ve seen all that, PD.

    I was asking if anyone had seen evidence of a formal evaluation in the context of this post. Without some medical or legal record, what’s happened is neither a failure of the law nor enforcement.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    On that note, I think my state requires therapists to report certain mental health conditions to the police. The discussion here makes it sound like other states may not do that, and federal law does not require it. I also believe to get a FOID card one needs to check a box saying whether one has a mental illness.

  10. Janis Gore says:

    But without an evaluation, there’s nothing but anecdotal evidence that Loughner was mentally ill.

  11. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    “And, of course, even when we have strong reason to suspect that people are crazy — as was the case with the shooter here – there’s still a matter of Constitutionally protected rights to due process.”

    Not to mention that it would be horribly un-PC to openly accuse someone of being crazy because it might hurt their feelings.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    @ Janis Gore: Yeah, I understand that it wouldn’t help here, but I’m pointing out that the government may not be operating under the most stringent mental health restrictions available. But we also have to consider:

    How much mental health information we want the government to have;
    Whether such restrictions deter people from seeking mental health care; and
    Whether the quality of treatment suffers from the imposition of external legal concerns on the therapist/client relationship?

  13. Janis Gore says:

    Not to mention how much you want to do against Loughner’s will. Even were he to be diagnosed and effective medicines prescribed, how far do you want to go to force him to take them?

    Here’s a man who thinks government grammar is controlling his mind. Do you think he’ll take actual mind-controlling drugs from authorities?

    He LIKES to fly, according to Tierney.

  14. Gustopher says:

    Unless you want to make everyone who buys a gun prove to the government that they are sane, there are cases where someone who is insane will be able to legally buy a gun.

    I cannot think of a single right that is spelled out in the constitution having a requirement of a government approval before you can exercise it. We certainly let the insane vote, for instance.

  15. cb says:

    Issue with law that was proposed to “stop terrorists from buying guns” was simply that to stop someone from buying a gun, Attorney General would decide that person is terrorist based on reasonable belief. While you had right to appeal, you had to do it within 60 days of notification of denial and government could refuse to disclose information it was holding against you in interests of national security.

    If you want to read the full bill in all it’s glory. It’s HR 2159.

  16. wr says:

    CB — The Republicans who opposed this bill had absolutely no problem with giving the (then) president the power to abduct and imprison forever a person the government decided was a terrorist based on reasonable belief. But stop him from buying a gun? That was a step too far…