Most mass shootings involve mental illness. Legal reforms could protect society without trampling gun rights
By ROBERT LEIDER
Those in favor of gun rights feel that gun-control advocates are using the deranged actions of a few as a pretext to erode the right to bear arms. Because crimes committed with assault weapons are rare, they correctly note that such bans will have little or no impact on crime.
Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are completely frustrated with Congress's unwillingness to strengthen gun laws, despite the mounting body count over the years. For them, an assault-weapons ban is a first step toward bringing some rationality to this country's gun policy.
The result is stalemate. This stalemate can be broken—but only if both sides retreat slightly instead of standing their ground.
In addition to guns, the common denominator in most of these mass shootings has been mental illness. Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson, Ariz.), James Eagen Holmes (in the Aurora, Colo. theater), and now Adam Lanza all had significant mental health problems. As the country turns its attention to overhauling its health-care delivery system, we must discuss improving access and delivery of mental health care to those who need it. As part of this conversation, we need to update federal firearm laws as they relate to persons with mental illness—laws that currently are primitive and rooted in stereotypes.
Federal law generally prohibits the possession or acquisition of a firearm by a person "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution." Putting aside the offensive label and legal jargon, in simple terms this means that a person is prohibited for life from possessing firearms if the person has ever been: involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or found by a court to be a danger to himself or others, found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial, or unable to manage his own affairs. It does not matter whether the person currently has a mental illness.
Federal law is both under- and over-inclusive. It is under-inclusive because plenty of people with severe mental illnesses escape the ban on possessing firearms—provided, for example, they have managed not to be formally committed to a mental institution, or found by a court to be incompetent or insane. The ban is over-inclusive because many people recover from mental illness and lead healthy and productive lives. A single involuntary commitment for a severe eating disorder at age 20 will preclude a person from possessing a hunting rifle for the rest of his life.
Gun-rights advocates should support efforts to strengthen the prohibition on possessing firearms by those who have mental illness. Many people with severe mental illness are too dangerous to entrust with firearms—regardless of whether they have been formally labeled under the current law as ineligible.
Mr. Leider is a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.