June 14, 2007

Guns and Madness

I'm assuming that many of you saw that the House of Representatives passed an NRA-supported gun control bill yesterday that aimed to close some dangerous loopholes, requiring states to more quickly and fully provide information to check the criminal and mental health records of potential gun buyers.

Congressional Quarterly reports that the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, due in part to resistance by Gun Owners of America and unidentified mental health advocacy groups.

As someone who uses the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to check the status of potential gun purchasers, I have reservations about the proposed changes, even though I strongly believe that neither felons nor the mentally ill should have access to firearms. Actually, it is my concern over the mentally ill potentially accessing firearms that has me worried.

One provision of the bill that was described thusly:

The senator suggested earlier this week that he was pleased with negotiated language that would explicitly protect the ability of veterans designated as having psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, to buy guns. The measure would also authorize procedures that would allow those successfully treated for mental illness to regain the ability to buy guns.

I'm neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, and I do not have anything beyond a layman's understanding of how the human psyche is damaged nor healed. Frankly, based upon what I've seen of people who have been to psychologists and psychiatrists, I'm none to certain that the experts have any idea, either.

For this reason, I'm extremely leery about how they might determine whether someone who was once determined to be mentally ill is now "cured."

My secondary concern deals with reality and the law of unintended consequences.

While a NICS background check is an important tool in sorting out those who should not be allowed to purchase firearms, it is simply one tool based upon documented information.

In my opinion—and I believe that I share this opinion with many who sell firearms on the retail level—one of the best tools to determine whether someone should be allowed to purchase a firearm is an employee trained to look for certain "red flag" characteristics in a buyer. For every high-profile killer like Seung-Hui Cho, there are many potential purchasers without a criminal or mental record who should not be allowed to purchase firearms for other, less technical but still reasonable concerns.

I have, on more than one occasion, turned down a transaction after a NICS background check came back allowing the sale to proceed simply because something "wasn't quite right" about the purchaser. Displayed maturity, firearms safety, certain mannerisms, personality traits, or other suspicious behavior can all be reasons to deny a sale that a database simply cannot account for.

Some gun sellers may become too over-reliant upon the more powerful proposed NICS system, and may forego some of the "human checks" as a result, while we at the same time rely on a less-than-precise mental health system to determine when someone is "cured" and once more able to purchase a firearm.

Somehow, I don't think this bill will change much.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at June 14, 2007 04:04 PM


If a firearms seller has refused to deal with someone because something seems indefinably off, does the law as written allow him to take further steps to keep the person from buying elsewhere?

Posted by: Doc Washboard at June 14, 2007 05:05 PM

There isn't anything legally that I'm aware of to do that, and I don't know if it is even possible to codify something being "off," as that is a subjective and impossible to define matter of judgement.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at June 14, 2007 05:09 PM

I'd be very leery of this because what is mental illness? Could it be someone guilty of a hate crime for instance? Or alleged spousal abuse or even sexual harassment? My guess is that mental illness will soon encompass smoker, drinkers, the over weight, rgistered GOP voters, white guys, christians (you have to b mental to believe in God), etc.

Posted by: Thomas Jackson at June 14, 2007 10:04 PM

But what about actual mental illness, TJ? It exists. It can make people dangerous. Certainly you don't want these folks to have guns, as well.

Posted by: Doc Washboard at June 14, 2007 10:40 PM

but we would not want retail salesmen, even firearm salesmen, to decide if someone is mentally ill. I think that could lead to serious abuse, even if it might catch folks in special cases.

Posted by: iconoclast at June 14, 2007 11:25 PM

I heard about this while I was driving around on Tuesday-- apparently, the actual text says that they have to be found not to have a mental problem.

In the military, at least the Navy, if someone tells a superior that I seem to be showing signs of a mental problem, they're required to put me under servelence and enter that in my record.

That notation was put in because a lot of vets were automatically monitored for mental illness simply because they were in a combat zone-- if they saw firefight or not.

Posted by: Foxfier at June 15, 2007 12:18 AM

The mandatory quarterly update of status should be a relief to those guys who've had bogus restraining orders slapped on them by psycho women.

Ignore the news stories - read the actual bill. I really didn't see anything in it to complain about.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at June 15, 2007 03:53 AM
but we would not want retail salesmen, even firearm salesmen, to decide if someone is mentally ill.

And what precisely do you think happens under the current system? Gun sellers have always been asked to use their judgement when determining whether or not to sell a firearm to a potential customer.

Do you honestly think a database in a far-off state is better equipped to judge a potential buyer's basic compentence, obvious stability, or possible alcohol or drug intoxication than an actual person three feet away?

Let me provide some real-world examples.

I had a guy come in and ask to see a firearm when I could smell the alcohol on him. A database wouldn't pick that up.

I've turned away a potential buyer because he seemed very agitated and angry when he came in to buy a shotgun. Who you rather I armed someone in this apparent state?

I've turned away another man because he asked point blank if a certain rifle was capable of killing a person from far away. Again, would you rather I sold this man the rifle?

A father and teen-aged son have made repeated trips to our establishment over the past year. They are so grossly (almost comically) incompent and unsafe in their handling of firearms that every employee who has dealt with them feels they would be a hazard to themselves and others if armed.

Once, the father actually pulled the muzzle towards his eye to look down the barrel while the son has his hand on the grip. Thank God we have trigger locks on all our display guns.

To date, I know one employee who has gently suggested that they take a firearms safety course before considering a purchase, which they blew off in a huff. They have done a lot of looking, but haven't tried to make a purchase. We've decided that until display more compentence and safety, we will not sell to them. To arm them would probably be criminally negligent, and is certainly morally so.

We are not asked to make a clinical diagnosis, but we are required morally and legally to refrain from selling firearms to those individual that we judge to be potentially dangerous, unstable, or impaired.

Had you been on hand to witness any of the examples cited above (and I'm certain other dealers have far more extreme examples), you probably would have judged us as mentally defective had we allowed the sale... unless, of course, you think we should trust a database somewhere instead of our own eyes, and sell firearms to homicidally-curious, agitated, unstable, or obviously intoxicated individuals.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at June 15, 2007 07:54 AM

I can answer your concern for the ability of "mental health experts" to certify that someone is "cured". If you would consider that just about anything regarding mental health is as close to voodoo as you can get, then you are on the mark. Despite over 100 years of observation and attempted treatment with the introduction of numerous psycho active drugs, the knowledge and treatment of mental health issures in still in the stone age. Often, the people who are professionals in this group of physicians are worse off than their patients. So when they say they are well treated, lock up the guns, close the store and barracade the door.

Posted by: David Caskey,MD at June 15, 2007 09:25 AM

As a psychiatrist I would echo your concerns over allowing the seriously and persistantly mentally ill to buy firearms. I am also skeptical of "cures" in psychiatry, with the possible exception of some simple phobias and minor depressive syndromes. I think the best advise is the one you gave - for clerks to be vigilent in their gut level assessment of potential buyers. To rely simply on a database to tell us what to do is foolhardy and would result in guns being sold to people who should never have them. As to Dr Caskey, the brain is a wonderfully complex organ and is far from being understood, but that does not mean we have made no progress and are merely modern day witchdoctors. To be involved in treating the mentally ill you have to be comfortable with a high degree of uncertainty as the medical knowledge base is simply not there to provide a high degree of certainty. Even in the area of a "simple" electromechanical pump such as the heart, our knowledge base continues to grow and treatments are improved.

Posted by: sy at June 15, 2007 12:09 PM

sy: PSYCHIATRY is partially a science but PSYCHOLOGY is NOT

theres no agreement on if many psychological disorders EXIST like asperger, passive/aggressive, dislexya &etc

there are good tests for some like SOCIOPATH but these are notoreously hard to apply!

disorders are REDEFINED every year


Posted by: Karl at June 15, 2007 02:26 PM
PSYCHIATRY is partially a science but PSYCHOLOGY is NOT psychology == NO PREDICTIVE POWER

Thank you, Tom Cruise. Try not to jump on the couch, okay?

Posted by: Doc Washboard at June 15, 2007 10:04 PM