Philadelphia Weekly | Michael Alan Goldberg | Jan. 18, 2011
It’s like a recurring nightmare from which there is no escape: A mentally ill person manages to legally buy a firearm and goes on a deadly shooting spree. America expresses its sorrow and outrage. Hands wring. People on all sides of the gun issue scream about what to do (or not to do). Little actually gets done, and the horror of the incident fades from the public consciousness. Until the next time it happens.
On everyone’s mind at the moment is Jared Loughner—who killed six people and injured 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), at a Tucson shopping center on Jan. 8—and how Arizona, with what many term its “lax gun laws,” failed to prevent a slaughter.
In Philadelphia nine years ago this week, people were talking about George Hahn. On Jan. 17, 2002, the 24-year-old—believed by his parents to have suffered for years from paranoid schizophrenia, though he never received a proper diagnosis or treatment—went to the Granite Run Mall in Media with the Glock semi-automatic handgun he’d legally purchased two months earlier. He randomly shot a mall employee four times, critically wounding him, then drove home and killed himself. That year, some Pennsylvania lawmakers talked about instituting stricter background checks to make it more difficult for people with mental illnesses to purchase firearms, but no legislation was passed. The law remains the same today as it was then.
Under current Pennsylvania law, you can be barred from purchasing a firearm for only two mental-health-related reasons: If you have been “adjudicated incompetent”—if a judge has ruled that due to a mental condition you’re either a danger to yourself or others, or if you lack the ability to manage your own affairs—or if at any point in your life you have been involuntarily committed to a mental-health treatment facility.
Such disqualifying mental-health records are required by law to be sent to the Pennsylvania State Police by county mental-health agencies and Courts of Common Pleas within seven days, and they are then entered into the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS), which is overseen by the PSP. “To the best of our knowledge, information is being submitted [to us] in accordance with the law,” says a PSP spokesperson, adding that all data received is entered into PICS within 24 hours.
When you go to a gun store to purchase a firearm, you select your weapon of choice, fill out some forms, and your information is then run through both PICS and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is operated by the FBI (and has the same standards regarding mental health as Pennsylvania, as per the federal Gun Control Act of 1968). Aside from other disqualifying factors such as felony convictions or certain drug/alcohol convictions, if you’re not flagged for either of the two mental-health disqualifiers, you’re good to go—you plunk down your cash and walk out with your firearm. According to the PSP’s 2009 Firearms Annual Report, the background-check process takes between five and 12 minutes to complete.
“We believe the PICS system is working as designed and has been highly effective in preventing persons with mental health disqualifications from obtaining firearms,” says the PSP.
But is it enough? Would Pennsylvania have been better able to stop Loughner than Arizona was?
“No,” says Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “The laws are completely inadequate.” Horwitz wants more mental-health records put into background-check databases, and points to New Jersey as a model that Pennsylvania needs to follow. The application for a New Jersey handgun purchase permit requires a person to answer whether or not they’ve voluntarily seen and/or been treated by a doctor for any mental or psychiatric condition on either an inpatient or outpatient basis, and if so they must provide the doctor’s name and further details. The process of getting a gun in New Jersey also involves a much more extensive mental-health background check—one that can take several days or more—which includes thorough investigation of records and interviews with a potential gun owner’s family members, neighbors and others in the community about the applicant’s mental state.
Had Loughner been held to those standards, says Horwitz, several red flags likely would have popped up during a background check—he was once considered such a threat at college that he was barred from attending until he could obtain clearance from a mental-health professional to return to classes. Several people who knew him in Tuscon considered him a “loose cannon.” “There’s no way this guy gets a gun in Jersey,” Horwitz says. “In Pennsylvania, he would have gotten the gun no problem.”
Phil Goldsmith, president of CeaseFirePA, is also in favor of establishing New Jersey-style mental-health background checks in Pennsylvania. “Carrying a gun is a right, but it’s also a responsibility, and what’s wrong with reasonable safeguards to make sure people are mentally fit to have a gun? Are people gonna get their hands on guns no matter what? Of course they are. But should we make it so easy for them? Of course not.”
Yet many mental-health professionals object to such changes in the law, arguing that people with mental illnesses are being singled out, scapegoated and stigmatized, and their rights are being threatened. “They’re going to try to take more people’s rights away based on no history of violence but based on the assumption, without any proof, that people with mental-health conditions are violent,” says Debbie Plotnick, director of the advocacy division at the Philadelphia-based Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “That’s the perception here, and that’s the problem.”
Plotnick points to data that suggest that only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts committed annually in the U.S. can be attributed to people with mental illness, as well as a 2009 study published by Oxford University that concluded that one’s chances of being killed by a stranger with schizophrenia is one in 14.3 million (meaning you’re three times more likely to be hit by lightning).
“But people with mental illnesses are real easy to blame for society’s problems,” she says. “Do you think that if we just lock away all those mentally ill people, or we deny them the right to do this, that, and the next thing, we are going to have a safer society? The answer is no.”
Gun-rights groups vehemently opposed to more restrictive gun laws are in Plotnick’s corner. Michael Hammond, legislative consultant for Gun Owners of America—which advocates a full repeal of the ’68 Gun Control Act and believes that only armed citizens and police, not laws, can ultimately stop people like Loughner—says, “It’s sort of alarming that this [Tucson] tragedy has provoked a debate where people are saying, ‘If you have a relative who’s acting strange, take them to the police station and have them involuntarily committed.’ We’ve said all along that the ramifications of this are theoretically that people with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with ADD, people with depression may all of a sudden be subject to a lifetime gun ban. That’s unconstitutional.”
Hammond acknowledges that in Pennsylvania there is legal means by which a person can petition the courts to overturn a gun ban, but he says that can take a long time; that there’s no guarantee a judge will grant relief; and that the burden of proof is on the petitioner to demonstrate they’ve fully recovered from their mental condition.
“It just comes down to this whole exercise of, ‘Here’s an episode, so we need to take away more rights so this episode will never happen again.’ One would think people would realize by now that this incremental erosion of rights hasn’t made us safe, it’s just made us considerably less free.”
Plotnick not only opposes calls for stricter mental-health background checks in Pennsylvania, she also believes the two mental-health disqualifiers currently on the books should be eliminated. “The law demonizes people. There’s no evidence that just because you’ve had an involuntary hospitalization that you are violent or you will ever be violent. There’s nothing whatsoever to back that up. A lot of people have had suicidal depression as teenagers and they’re involuntarily sent to treatment, and then they get better, and then they’re banned from buying a gun. Having a mental condition does not mean that you’ll always have a mental-health condition. So the law is beyond unfair.”
“My position is very simple—having a mental-health condition in and of itself is not a sufficient reason to take away people’s rights. Period.”
That stance doesn’t sit very well with Horwitz. “The mental-health profession has been saying that kind of thing for years, but it’s about time they changed their tune because it’s really unconscionable to say that people with serious mental illness should be able to have a gun without any kind of background check.
“I don’t think every mentally ill person is a danger, but those that are should not be able to get guns, and there are many people who are dangerous who have not gotten to the level of involuntary commitment.”
So the question now becomes, will Harrisburg consider legislation that would expand our current gun laws regarding mental-health evaluations? State Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) thinks it’s time to try again, even with the arrival of the gun-friendly Corbett administration.
“It’s important to have the most extensive background check that we possibly can,” Farnese says. I’m not talking about making someone wait six months—we’re talking about maybe a couple more days. The problem is, when you want to go and make the application or evaluation process a little more involved, you get a lot of pushback from the NRA and other groups like that.”
“We don’t have to make wholesale changes, and I’m not trying to take people’s guns away,” he says. “There are common-sense rules that can be implemented that will protect the public safety, which is the first duty of government, and still not violate people’s Second Amendment rights or discriminate against a particular group of society.”
Goldsmith hopes that a reasonable compromise can be hammered out in time to help Pennsylvania better combat its own Jared Loughners. “Society is all about taking competing interests and finding the right balance. A lot of these massacres are from people who have mental illnesses. Obviously you want to protect the rights of people with mental illness, but you also want to protect people from people who have mental illness. I think we have a little more work to do in Pennsylvania to find that right balance.”