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While the mentally ill this country face numerous inequities -- a lack of adequate health care, employment opportunities and ostracism from the mainstream of society among the more obvious injustices -- it is not an exercise in discrimination but in common sense to try to keep guns out of the hands of the potentially dangerous.
That's why most states bar gun sales to those with a mental disability -- often defined as someone who has been civilly committed to treatment, declared not guilty by reason of insanity, diagnosed schizophrenic, or in some states, has a history of serious drug and alcohol abuse.
While it is unfortunate that some people pose a substantial risk to themselves or others, it would truly be madness for the rest of us to ignore that fact. Providing a gun to someone who has previously demonstrated an inability to sort right from wrong is not unlike engaging everyone in an unending round of Russian roulette -- eventually it's going to get people killed.
That's why it's somewhat bizarre that North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is standing behind legislation he introduced last March that would restore gun ownership rights to veterans designated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Justice as "mentally incapacitated" or "mentally incompetent."
Senator Burr's beef appears to be that the standards used by the VA for determining mental incapacity were developed from concerns over whether certain veterans can be responsible for their personal finances. If they could not manage their VA benefits, they made the list that, in turn, is used to flag gun purchases under the Brady Act's background check.
Although an inability to manage one's finances is far form a perfect measure of dangerousness, it's not an especially unreasonable standard either. To assume that individuals who have served in the military are not capable of unreasoned violence is to deny reality. Health studies have shown that veterans are more likely to commit suicide than the general public, and when they do so, they are most likely to use guns.
Last week, the head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pointed to the shooting incident at Fort Hood that cost 13 lives as demonstrating the wrongfulness of the Burr bill. "This latest tragedy, at a heavily fortified army base, ought to convince more Americans to reject the argument that the solution to gun violence is to arm more people with more guns in more places."
Senator Burr responded by going on cable TV and calling the statement an exploitation of tragedy for the "personal triumph" of Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke.
What nonsense. If it's exploitation to protect veterans and their families, the country could use more of it. If Mr. Burr wants to denounce genuine exploitation, he need look no further than his unwavering opposition to the regulation of the tobacco industry as its products kill thousands in his home state.
If, however, the nation wants to honor those who died at Fort Hood, they could scarcely do better than to stand behind gun purchase background checks that can help spare their families' lives. As another tragedy, the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that took the lives of 32 innocent people also demonstrated, a ban on gun purchases by the mentally ill can't be effective if authorities are not made aware of who they are.