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EDITORIAL

Will 'universal' background checks help?

Monday, April 1, 2013 - 8:25 am

With criminals, yes, but not so much with the mentally ill.

Democrat Joe Donnelly, Indiana’s junior U.S. senator, has now joined the stampede rushing to support “universal” background checks of people seeking to buy firearms. Of all the gun control measure now being considered by Congress, that is the one mostly likely to be passed, and it is the one favored by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

“I want to make sure that people with, say, a felony or dealing with mental illness cannot get their hands on weapons that can cause so much destruction,” Donnelly said at the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce. There’s one problem – more checks are not likely to achieve the desired result.

The checks are very good at weeding out people with criminal records, so requiring more people to be checked – even when they’re engaged in a private sale, not just buying through a licensed dealer – will result in more criminals being discovered and denied a permit. But most mass shootings – which are what all this is aimed at – aren’t done by bank robbers taking the day off. They’re committed by the dangerously mentally ill.

And the background checks are not good at spotting those people at all.

There is just too much variation among states on requirements to submit mental health records to the federal background database. Indiana law, for example, does not require court officials to search past records; some states do – Texas, for example. About 4,000 Hoosiers would not pass a federal background check, while in much smaller Delaware 19,000 would be stopped from getting a gun. In Massachusetts, one person – yes, one – would be stopped.

Even the National Rifle Association, which opposes expanding the checks, says there are holes in the system.

“We have a mental health system in this country that is completely collapsed,” says NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre. “We have no national database of these lunatics. Twenty-three states are still putting only a small number of records into the system, and a lot of states are putting none.”

As long as there is no uniform method of reporting potentially dangerous mentally illness and a strong requirement to actually do the reporting, there is no point in augmenting the system. To paraphrase a computer industry saying: If you expand a mess, all you get is a bigger mess.

Donnelly isn’t exactly going out on a political limb. A poll conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns shows 89 percent of Hoosiers have been persuaded to support background checks. This is classic feel-good legislation – something that makes people feel something has been accomplished even though it really hasn’t.