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Mental Illness And Gun Ownership

by G&A Staff   |  March 1st, 2005 11

Anyone who has purchased a gun recently is familiar with the mental health question that appears on both the federal and state gun-purchase applications: “Have you ever been declared incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution?” This question seems reasonable enough. Most people just answer “No” and move on to the next question.

Virtually everyone agrees that individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses should not be allowed to purchase firearms. For their part, most gun buyers assume that federal and state authorities verify the accuracy of the answers provided for the mental health question. That, unfortunately, is not the case.

After a prospective gun buyer completes the federal and state gun-purchase applications, the gun dealer normally picks up the phone and calls the FBI or the state police. He requests that the gun purchaser’s name be checked against the data contained in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). While the NICS criminal-record database is considered to be reasonably accurate and up to date, the same cannot be said for the NICS records of involuntary mental hospital commitments.

There are an estimated 3 million living Americans who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions. The NICS database only contains the names of about 90,000 of these individuals. There are only 17 states that provide information on involuntary commitment for inclusion in the NICS database. Many of the noncompliant states simply have not computerized their records on involuntary commitment. However, a large number of the noncompliant states are also grappling with serious health-information privacy issues and are reluctant to provide the required data to NICS before these issues are resolved.

Under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, mental health records may only be released to medical professionals, health insurance workers and quality-control personnel. Ohio’s attorney general has not yet determined how to gain access to the medical records needed to process CCW applications. Because Ohio has a relatively new CCW law, sheriffs are being asked to assist temporarily in checking courthouse records for involuntary-commitment orders. This exercise is both time-consuming and labor-intensive. It’s also unlikely to produce all of the information needed to verify the accuracy of answers provided on Ohio CCW permit applications.

Although federal and state laws establish involuntary commitment as a prohibiting factor for gun purchases, mental health professionals contend that there is no scientific basis for this prohibition.

According to Dr. Paul Applebaum, vice president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “checking for involuntary commitments…doesn’t make sense because past mental illness does not predict future violence.”

Scientific research appears to support Dr. Applebaum’s position. The Foundation for Research on Mental Health and the Law monitored 1,000 former mental patients for eight years after they were released from institutions. The researchers found that the former mental patients were only slightly more prone to violence than the general population. A study by the MacArthur Foundation indicated that former mental patients were no more violent than individuals who were not mentally ill.

There is no guarantee that the prohibition on gun purchases by involuntarily committed individuals will weed out the potentially most dangerous gun purchasers. Schizophrenics, severe manic-depressives and other seriously ill individuals may legally purchase firearms. Many of these individuals are highly intelligent and may be notoriously difficult to diagnose. In a statement, the APA cautioned that “psychiatrists have no special knowledge or ability with which to predict dangerous behavior” by patients. Although schizophrenics and others with similar illnesses may be delusional and have distorted perceptions of reality, they may be able to control their symptoms long enough to complete the gun-purchasing process. Firearms in the hands of these acutely disturbed individuals are a menace to society.

Some anti-gun organizations have suggested that all mentally ill individuals should be prohibited from purchasing firearms. Just for the sake of argument, how would one go about identifying all mentally ill people?

The former U.S. Surgeon General estimates that 20 percent of Americans suffer from some type of mental illness. How would mental illness be defined?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that “mental illness is any diagnosable, behavioral or emotional disorder that interferes with or limits a person’s ability to live, work, learn and participate fully in the community.”

Such a broad definition could easily be applied to more than 20 percent of the population. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the bible of the mental health profession, even lists cigarette smoking and coffee drinking as mental illnesses.

  • Randall

    Disqualifying someone because of them being “involuntarily committed” is casting a VERY WIDE NET. One can have that happen for non-violent treatable illnesses like depression. The real problem with our laws is that the lawmakers don’t take the time to write good common sense laws.

  • Steve Brown

    I struggle with an anxiety disorder, and I have gone to the ER just because of severe panic attacks. This reflects nothing meaningfully defective of my psyche, or criminal of my being, or incompetency to make rational choices. Millions of americans have psychological disorders which are not are not constitutive of a lack of rational apprehension of events and the moral and rational ability to navigate those events. I was nearly “committed” once, due to a panic attack. I was just there for peace of mind, in case my heart rate got out of whack. I never actually got treated because my attack subsided. The lady was very contractual in her verbage and told me that I was free to go because I had not been seen by a doctor. Implicity saying that I might have been held involuntarily for the simple act of having a panic atack. If this had actually gone on my record it is possible I might have lost my right to bear arms, though my cognitive and moral faculties are fully functional. As such, this kind of broad-strokes sentiment toward people with mental conditions is offensive and bigoted toward those who are capable of making moral choices, yet unfortunately sometimes suffer from psychological distresses which are not necessarily rooted in psychosis.

    Very specific language should be devoted to what kind of patients are not allowed to bear arms, and those patients should be sufficiently psychotic so as to justify the deprivation of the god given right to assume individual sovereignty over one’s personal safety.

  • Windsore

    I have a nephew who if you have a 15 minute conversation with him, you will know there is something wrong with him. He has a gun and carry permit. There is no vehicle in place to have him professionally diagnosed. He will hurt someone or himself eventually.

  • JollyJenny

    I have bipolar disorder however it does not define ME!! I’ve been well medicated for over 10 years. Yet I can’t purchase a 22 to hunt deer. Really?? This to me is ridiculous! Ever committed in an institution ..NO! Ever committed a felony ..NO! I’m being judged which I find to be discrimination. Yes ..I agree there are some very mentally impaired individuals who I’d fear if they had a gun. I’m NOT mentally unstable. Can’t even get a pellet gun ..that’s what’s “crazy”!!

    • Kai

      Dude, I’ve been diagnosed with BP 1 and can still buy a handgun.

  • JollyJenny

    I hate to say but the “mentally incompetent” individuals won’t worry about buying a gun legally. They can simply buy them off the street in a black market. Do our lawmakers really think that all guns are registered to the individuals carrying them??!! I know a brother of an acquaintance who has Aspergers and personality disorder..illegally owns several assault weapons!!

  • Mike

    I have paranoid schizophrenia and I’ve been around guns my entire life. I come from a family of sportsmen. I came down with this illness when I was 18. The doctors told my parents I would never be the same. My prognoses was very poor at the time. I was hospitalized for a month. I made an incredible recovery and fought hard to get where I am in life. I’m now 37 and I’ve been symptom free since I was 20. Although I still take medication it’s at a low dose. I’ve had access to firearms my entire life. I am neither homicidal or suicidal nor have I ever been. I can’t buy a hunting rifle because the second amendment don’t apply to me. I was going to join the marines until I got sick.

  • David J. Baird

    I want to put myself on the register

  • David J. Baird

    I have a plan where mental health issued persons could be given the change to put themselves on the register.

  • Ringo

    “Firearms in the hands of these acutely disturbed individuals are a menace to society”

    As opposed to the obtusely disturbed, or the thousands of angry people who are advocating violent revolution if they don’t get their way in politics? I’m looking forward to the day when the real lunatics of the country – the god-fearing right-wingers who horde firearms specifically to fight against people they politically disagree with – go on a rampage. Maybe then you will realize the simple fact that the “disturbed” individuals are the least of your worries.

  • dan

    I am schizoeffective and have no violent history or nothing and im a very happy go lucky kinda guy and I have an interest in deer hunting I love deer meat I was wondering can I hunt still with my illness or even own a gun to go deer hunting it is a passion of mine I usto go hunting as a child before my illness and have passed hunters safety courses I live in north dakotaand want to go hunting in minnesota with my wifes family

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