Could stricter laws have stopped the Lafayette shooting?

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did a remarkable thing over the weekend, at least by the standards of Republicans running for president: He argued that stricter gun control laws might have stopped a mass shooting. For the first few days after a gunman opened fire on the patrons of a movie theater in Lafayette, La., Mr. Jindal, who sports an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, stuck to the line that it was time for prayers and hugs, not politics. But on Sunday, he made the claim that if all states had gun control laws as tough as those he's pursued in Louisiana, the attacker, identified as John R. Houser, would not have been able to buy the gun he used to kill two innocent people and then himself.

It turns out that's not exactly true. Houser spent time in a Georgia mental institution, but contrary to early reports, he was not involuntarily committed and thus did not, under that state's procedures and interpretations of federal law, have his name uploaded to the federal background check system. But the technicalities here are less interesting than the mere fact that Mr. Jindal used the occasion to highlight gun control legislation Louisiana enacted two years ago and to urge that "every state should strengthen their laws."


It is rather rich for Mr. Jindal to be the apostle of gun control. His state, after all, is widely viewed as having among the most lax gun laws in the nation, and not coincidentally, it consistently ranks at the top for its gun murder rate.

Nonetheless, Mr. Jindal has a point — our systems for keeping guns out of the wrong hands are only as good as the data they rely on. Although reporting of mental health data to the federal background check system, known as NICS, has improved markedly since the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting — a clear case in which the gunman should have been prohibited from buying firearms — compliance still varies widely by state. A 2013 analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found a dozen states that had each submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal database, and the Government Accountability Office reported in 2012 that most of the increase in reporting is the result of efforts by a handful of states.


How is Louisiana doing? According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Louisiana has reported fewer than 1,000 mental health records to the NICS system. This is progress, as it had reported precisely one name before the 2013 law Mr. Jindal touted, but it pales in comparison to other states. Delaware, with one-fifth of Louisiana's population, uploaded more than 20,000 records in the first six months after it enacted a mandatory reporting law in 2012. (Maryland, which also adopted mandatory reporting in 2013, doesn't do particularly well on this score either, having uploaded fewer than 8,000 mental health records, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.)

But if Mr. Jindal or anyone else is seriously interested in passing laws that could prevent a tragedy like the one that struck last week in Lafayette, there's a bigger problem than states' uneven performance at mental health reporting. The fact of the matter is, had Georgia uploaded the information about Houser's mental illness, he still could have bought a gun in Alabama, Louisiana or any one of the 33 states that do not require background checks for private transactions. What's known as the "gun show loophole" in the federal Brady background check law allows people to purchase weapons with no questions asked so long as they don't go to a federally licensed firearm dealer. (Maryland has long required background checks on private sales of handguns.)

And even closing that loophole — which the vast majority of the public and even three-quarters of NRA members support — wouldn't be enough. As we saw in the case of Dylann Roof, the man accused in the recent church shooting in Charleston, S.C., yet other loopholes can allow guns to get in the wrong hands. Mr. Roof should have been prohibited from buying a gun because he had admitted to felony drug possession charges. But the FBI is only allowed three days to complete its background check before a dealer is allowed to release a weapon to a purchaser, and in this case, the screener wasn't able to get the relevant records in time. And that's hardly a rare occurrence; it happens about 230,000 times a year.

After mass shootings, gun rights advocates often fall back on the idea that the shooter might have been stopped if only more people carried guns. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is also running in the Republican presidential primaries, echoed that idea this weekend by responding to questions about the Lafayette shooting by stating his opposition to gun-free zones. But that obviously wasn't the problem here; Louisiana, after all, is a state that allows worshippers to carry concealed weapons in church. Rather, a man whose family says he was mentally disturbed and violent was able to purchase a .40-caliber handgun with no difficulty whatsoever. Even if Mr. Jindal took a narrow view of the legal laxities that allowed that to happen, he at least acknowledged that gun control laws can prevent such tragedies. In the context of America's baffling gun politics, that's a start.