Updated December 17, 2012, 10:06 p.m. ET

Breaking the Gun Control Stalemate
Most mass shootings involve mental illness. Legal reforms could protect society without trampling gun rights


In addition to causing horror and outrage, Friday’s shooting deaths by Adam Lanza of 27 people, including 20 school children, in Sandy Hook, Conn., are already prompting calls for new gun laws. Supporters of gun control demand restrictions on ammunition magazines and bans on so-called assault weapons—semiautomatic versions of military firearms. Gun-rights advocates see another mass shooting in a “gun-free zone” and argue for expanding the places where individuals with valid permits may carry their weapons.

A group shares a moment of silence at the entrance to Newtown, Conn.’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dec. 15.

Neither proposal will accomplish much—except to alienate the other side. Those in favor of gun rights feel that gun-control advocates are using the deranged actions of a few as a pretext to erode the right to bear arms. Because crimes committed with assault weapons are rare, they correctly note that such bans will have little or no impact on crime.

Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are completely frustrated with Congress’s unwillingness to strengthen gun laws, despite the mounting body count over the years. For them, an assault-weapons ban is a first step toward bringing some rationality to this country’s gun policy.

The result is stalemate. Gun-control supporters have not passed a major federal law since the 10-year freeze on assault weapons in 1994. Gun-rights advocates have not significantly rolled back existing federal restrictions on firearms since 1986.

This stalemate can be broken—but only if both sides retreat slightly instead of standing their ground.

In addition to guns, the common denominator in most of these mass shootings has been mental illness. Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson, Ariz.), James Eagen Holmes (in the Aurora, Colo. theater), and now Adam Lanza all had significant mental health problems. As the country turns its attention to overhauling its health-care delivery system, we must discuss improving access and delivery of mental health care to those who need it. As part of this conversation, we need to update federal firearm laws as they relate to persons with mental illness—laws that currently are primitive and rooted in stereotypes.

Federal law generally prohibits the possession or acquisition of a firearm by a person “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.” Putting aside the offensive label and legal jargon, in simple terms this means that a person is prohibited for life from possessing firearms if the person has ever been: involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or found by a court to be a danger to himself or others, found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial, or unable to manage his own affairs. It does not matter whether the person currently has a mental illness.

Federal law is both under- and over-inclusive. It is under-inclusive because plenty of people with severe mental illnesses escape the ban on possessing firearms—provided, for example, they have managed not to be formally committed to a mental institution, or found by a court to be incompetent or insane. The ban is over-inclusive because many people recover from mental illness and lead healthy and productive lives. A single involuntary commitment for a severe eating disorder at age 20 will preclude a person from possessing a hunting rifle for the rest of his life.

There is plenty of room to compromise on this issue, and in a way that may produce meaningful results. Both sides should continue to work together to update the “National Instant Check System.” Gun dealers use this system to vet gun purchasers before transferring firearms. Unfortunately, despite a 2007 federal law that was supposed to mandate better reporting by states (passed in response to the Virginia Tech massacre), many states lag behind in reporting individuals who are barred from possessing firearms due to mental illness.

The lack of proper reporting by Virginia led to Seung-Hui Cho’s firearm purchase, even though a judge had found Cho a danger to himself—a finding that made him ineligible to purchase firearms under federal law. Colorado’s James Eagen Holmes purchased his weapons legally because he had not been formally committed despite his mental health problems. Although the information remains preliminary, Adam Lanza’s mother may not have secured her guns from her son despite his apparent history of behavioral problems.

Gun-rights advocates should support efforts to strengthen the prohibition on possessing firearms by those who have mental illness. Many people with severe mental illness are too dangerous to entrust with firearms—regardless of whether they have been formally labeled under the current law as ineligible.

Mechanisms can be put in place to identify such people—and restrict their access to firearms, including expanding background checks to private sales, i.e., between individuals who are not in the business of selling firearms. Gun owners (especially close relatives of such persons, such as Adam Lanza’s mother) should also be obligated to store unused firearms safely so that potentially dangerous persons and minor children do not gain easy access to them.

As for gun-control advocates, they should show more flexibility about restoring firearm rights for people who may have suffered from mental illness in the past but are no longer a danger. Instead of lobbying to expand the number of people permanently ineligible to possess any type of firearm, gun-control advocates should accept a risk-based approach.

Some patients may be permanently impaired, making them too much of a risk ever to trust with firearms. Others should be temporarily barred or restricted. But efforts to restrict the types of firearms possessed by law-abiding, healthy adults are counterproductive. They unnecessarily repel gun-rights advocates at a time when what America needs most is a united front.

A risk-based approach reflective of a person’s present danger would leave law-abiding, mentally stable citizens free to pursue their hobbies. It also would modernize federal firearm laws by expanding the ability to remove firearms from those too unstable to possess them. The stalemate can be broken, but only if both sides exit their trenches.

Mr. Leider is a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

A version of this article appeared December 17, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Breaking the Gun Control Stalemate.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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