Editorial: Gun checks, mental health, add to debate

Editorial: Gun checks, mental health, add to debate


The issue of gun control is as divisive as they come in American politics, but there actually are at least a couple of points on which we have general agreement. 

Here's one of those points: The FBI's background-check system for gun buyers — which includes records of criminal convictions, mental illness diagnoses and other red flags to keep guns away from people who shouldn't have them — should be as complete as possible.

Here's another: Better mental health care in the United States could play a big role in stopping the mass shootings which occur in this country with numbing frequency.

If you're nodding in agreement now, maybe you should stop: The Washington Post reported on Friday that the FBI's database is missing millions of records of people who likely should not have access to firearms. That list includes the gunman who last weekend killed 26 people at a Texas church; he had been convicted at a court-martial of charges stemming from a domestic violence case, but the Air Force didn't notify the FBI. So when the gunman bought weapons at a retail store, he cleared his background check. 

The Air Force isn't alone in its failure to pass along potentially important information to the FBI's database: Some estimates suggest that about 7 million records are missing from the system, the Post reported.

The FBI and others have known for years about its big gaps in this database; in fact, the Post noted, the government funded a four-year effort beginning in 2008 to try to get a sense of how many records were missing, but that effort was abandoned because of its cost. In 2016, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that was aimed in part to improve the quality of the gun-check database.

Part of the problem is that local and state government law enforcement agencies vary widely in terms of the information they provide to the FBI. For their part, those agencies often say they don't have the necessary resources to keep current information flowing to the FBI. And there is some confusion as to what information is required to be provided for the database.

But if you wanted to focus on just one area to improve, it would be information regarding domestic assault convictions: The gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety has conducted a study concluding that more than half of recent mass shootings (54 percent) were related to domestic or family violence.

We can argue, and we will, about other gun control measures. But we should not allow that debate to distract us from an opportunity to start plugging some of the biggest holes in the primary safety net we have to try to catch people who should not have access to guns.

As for the argument that better mental health care could help prevent tragedies like the Texas shooting or the massacre in Las Vegas: There's no doubt that the United States needs better mental health care. But experts say it's unlikely to do much to prevent mass shootings, because the sorts of people who tend to commit mass murder often are not mentally ill or don't see themselves as such, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. Mass murderers tend to blame the outside world for their problems, so they're not good candidates for therapies that require self-examination.

In fact, experts say very little violence is actually committed by mentally ill people. The Atlantic quoted a psychiatry professor at Duke University, who said that curing schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression would reduce overall violence by just 4 percent.

Don't misunderstand: Those cures would be wonderful things. But the reason to fix our mental health system is not to stop mass shootings. The reason is to improve the lives of millions of Americans. That reason should be sufficient. (mm)


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