CHICAGO -- In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, there was the usual debate between supporters and opponents of gun control. On one thing, though, everyone seemed to be in agreement: Seung-Hui Cho, whom a judge had found a danger to himself, never should have been allowed to buy a gun. But now that legislation has been introduced to keep deranged people from getting firearms, we find not quite everyone is on board.
Under federal law, Mr. Cho was legally barred from gun possession. The law disqualifies people in several categories, including anyone convicted of a felony or of domestic violence, anyone in the country illegally, anyone dishonorably discharged from the military, and anyone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution." Mr. Cho fit the last category. But because he was never committed, the state didn't include his name on the list it submitted for the federal database used to check the eligibility of gun buyers. The governor of Virginia recently signed legislation to change the state's reporting process.
Better still, Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York has introduced a bill to require states to provide the FBI with all the records needed for background checks, including those dealing with mental health adjudications. It also provides funds to the states to upgrade their reporting systems.
The National Rifle Association's executive vice president, Wayne R. LaPierre, said the organization supports measures to ensure that mental health records get into the federal database. "Our position on this is crystal clear: If you are adjudicated by a court to be mentally defective, suicidal, a danger to yourself or to others, you should be prohibited from buying a firearm," he told Newsweek.
You might think that if you can persuade the NRA to endorse a restriction on gun ownership, you can persuade anyone. But the McCarthy bill drew fierce opposition from another group: those claiming to advocate for the mentally ill.
"It is unconscionable to restrict people's civil rights because they have a medical illness," said Nada Stotland, vice president of the American Psychiatric Association (though the APA says it doesn't take a position).
David Shern, president of Mental Health America, denounced the measure as "an extremely ill-informed, regressive social policy that further stigmatizes people and will do nothing to reduce gun violence." The critics say the ban discriminates against people with mental illness, based on the erroneous assumption that they are more violent than other people.
But it's fair to assume that people who have been evaluated and ruled by a court to be dangerous are indeed more dangerous than those who have not.
And it's ridiculous to claim that barring them from getting guns punishes them for having a medical illness.
The point, keep in mind, is to exclude anyone who is dangerous, regardless of whether he is sick or well, sane or not. The categories in the law are a reasonable attempt to define the sort of people who should not be trusted with lethal firepower. Those who merely suffer from mental illness, whether it's depression or a phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, are free to buy guns - unless they have been ruled dangerous or they've been committed to a psychiatric facility.
Mr. Shern warned CQ Weekly that the bill will discourage people from seeking treatment. But no one is going to lose his shooting privileges for going to a psychiatrist. Only a tiny minority of patients falls under the ban.
The obvious alternative to upgrading enforcement of the existing law is to repeal it and let people known to suffer from dangerous mental illnesses enjoy free access to firearms. And that, pardon the expression, would be lunacy.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.