When the Right to Bear Arms Includes the Mentally Ill

Also in the New York Times a short while ago was a piece describing what advocates of gun control have to contend with when even mental health checks are challenged. This is an edited version of that article:

Last April, workers at Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut called the police to report that a psychiatric patient named Mark Russo had threatened to shoot his mother if officers tried to take the 18 rifles and shotguns he kept at her house. Mr. Russo, who was off his medication for paranoid schizophrenia, also talked about the recent elementary school massacre in Newtown. The police seized the firearms, as well as seven high-capacity magazines, but Mr. Russo, 55, was eventually allowed to return to the trailer where he lives alone. As for his guns, Mr. Russo is scheduled to get them back in the spring, as mandated by Connecticut law.

The Russo case highlights a central, unresolved issue in the debate over balancing public safety and the Second Amendment right to bear arms: just how powerless law enforcement can be when it comes to keeping firearms out of the hands of people who are mentally ill. Connecticut’s law giving the police broad leeway to seize and hold guns for up to a year is actually relatively strict. Most states only ban gun possession after someone is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility or designated as mentally ill or incompetent after a court proceeding or other formal legal process. As a result, the police often find themselves grappling with legal ambiguities when they encounter mentally unstable people with guns, unsure how far they can go in searching for and seizing firearms and then, in particular, how they should respond when the owners want them back.

In each of three recent shootings the gunman had been recognized as mentally disturbed but had not been barred from owning a firearm. After the Newtown killings a year ago, state legislatures across the country debated measures that would have more strictly limited the gun rights of those with mental illness. But most of the bills failed amid resistance from both the gun lobby and mental health advocates concerned about unfairly stigmatizing people. The New York Times obtained records from more than 1,000 cases in which guns were seized in mental-health-related episodes. A systematic review of these cases underscores how easy it is for people with serious mental health problems to have guns. Moreover, in many of the cases examined, the authorities said they had no choice under the law but to return the guns after an initial seizure for safekeeping. And nothing prevents the mentally ill from buying new guns. Adding to the uncertainty for law enforcement, federal courts have ruled that an emergency involuntary psychiatric evaluation is not grounds to bar someone from possessing firearms. Following the Newtown shooting the mental health debate in state legislatures focused largely on two areas: requiring mental health professionals to report dangerous people to the authorities and expanding the mental health criteria for revoking gun rights.

 As for Mark Russo, the Middletown man who is looking forward to reclaiming his 18 guns in April, he acknowledged that public records indicated that he had made threats of violence, but he said they were untrue. He said he had had difficulty getting doctors to understand the real nature of his problem, which is not mental illness but paranormal activities that have afflicted him since his youth, including objects disappearing from his home and a bird once flying out of his forehead. “I’ve offered to take a lie-detector test to prove what I’m saying is true,” he said. “But psychiatrists, they don’t want to hear about God and demons and all that.”

Editors note: I have removed many, many examples of what appear to me to be incredibly bizarre behavior protected by the gun lobby. How unbelievably disturbing all this is. On a lighter note, and harking back to an editorial I wrote many years ago, you should now go to YouTube and see the 3 episodes from the Daily Show in which John Oliver compares Australia’s gun control laws with those of the U.S. The link is: (John Oliver Australia Gun Control)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVuspKSjfgA&list=PLOKWcH1zBl2kfnCwyyZWk5MW28lgaNa7L