My aunt, who died of breast cancer earlier this year, suffered from mental illness all her life. At her best, she was one of the kindest women I knew. But her illness would often manifest itself in acts of extreme violence. Once, she hurled a heavy water glass that missed my head by a few millimeters when I was a teenager. Years later, she beat my grandmother into a coma using her fists, which were the only weapons at her disposal.
I thought of her after the horrific shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last month. For the last 30 years of her life, my aunt lived in Israel, where she would have been unable to purchase a firearm. Had she lived in the United States, she would have been able to go to a gun show and buy the same type of semi-automatic weapon that was used to mow down movie-goers in Colorado, shoppers in Oregon and six year olds in Connecticut – no questions asked.
What does it say about the gun culture in this country that a mentally ill person can have unfettered access to a weapon of mass destruction? Do those who shout loudest about the Second Amendment truly believe that the Founders wanted the mentally ill to have access to a weapon that could fire multiple rounds in a few seconds?
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech but does not guarantee the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. I have the right to drink alcohol but if I get behind the wheel of a car inebriated, I can get thrown in jail for the night, regardless of whether I have hurt anyone while driving. We regulate all sorts of behavior in order to prevent innocent bystanders from getting killed. What makes guns so sacred that Americans are not offered preemptive protection from death by firearm?
Good guys with guns don’t prevent bad guys with guns from getting them, as the recent shooting in a New Jersey police station proved. But like most things in life, this debate is not really as black and white as the showdown between “good guys” and “bad guys.”
My aunt was a good person – one of the most pure hearted people I knew. During her good days, she possessed a gentleness rarely found in adults. But it is a blessing that she never had access to a firearm.
On paper, we have laws that prevent the mentally ill from possessing guns. In reality, those laws are not worth the paper they are written on. Many states do not submit relevant records of those adjudicated to be mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). What’s worse, only licensed gun dealers have to run their customers’ names through a background check. 40% of the guns in this country are not purchased through those licensed dealers – and their buyers are not subject to a background check of any kind.
Penalizing states that refuse to report the mentally ill to the NCIS is a start. We need to prevent people who have ever been involuntarily confined because they pose a danger to themselves or others from purchasing guns. We need to require that a panel of licensed psychiatrists, and not judges, assess a petitioner before restoration of gun rights. And we need to make it a crime to engage in private firearm transactions unless the buyer is subject to the same NCIS rules as anyone purchasing guns from a licensed dealer.
Liberals may argue that these laws would violate privacy. Conservatives may say that they would set up yet another expensive federal bureaucracy. Second Amendment fundamentalists would scream that they would impede our unfettered right to bear arms.
These measures would do all those things – and they would undoubtedly save lives.
I visited my aunt for the last time a year before she died. I had not seen her in a long time and I was shocked at her deterioration. She did not recognize me and was terrified by the stranger who appeared on her doorstep. Then, she ran upstairs, barricaded herself in her room and cowered as though she were hiding from an intruder. When I pleaded with her to let me in, she beat her fists against her side of the wall as a warning. Again, her fists were the only weapons at her disposal.
Preventing people like my aunt from possessing guns isn’t a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights – it is common sense.