Advocates have been frustrated for years at the inability of federal lawmakers to pass comprehensive new gun control legislation, but two recent examples of gun violence point to the failure of a system that’s already in place. Both John R. Houser, who shot and killed two people and injured nine others in a Lafayette, La., movie theater July 23, and Dylann Roof, who has been charged with killing nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church on June 17, were able to purchase weapons because they passed a standard background check that both should have failed. Houser had a history of mental illness; Roof had admitted to illegal drug possession. In both cases, the gunmen slipped through the leaky and inefficient National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The system, which has been in operation since 1998, is the one gun control tool supported by both advocates of gun control and gun rights. In fact, the National Rifle Association has based its opposition to further gun control laws partly on the argument that a renovation of the background check system should come first. But as a New York Times story reported, the system is riddled with loopholes as well as administrative flaws. For one, individual states are inconsistent in reporting information to the database, and they are not required to participate. The Times story pointed out that Georgia has reported fewer than 9,000 people over the years while Virginia, with a much smaller population, has reported more than 231,000.
Another problem is that the system’s regulations regarding the mentally ill are narrow, with varying interpretations among jurisdictions. The system would report those who have been committed to a hospital against their will, but the definition of involuntary commitment is slippery. A temporary detention for emergency psychiatric evaluation, for instance, is not considered involuntary commitment. And though a Georgia Probate Court judge ordered John Houser detained and sent to a mental hospital, the Times reported, there was never a formal ruling that would have become part of the federal system. Voluntary commitment, even by someone considered a threat to self or others, would not qualify for inclusion in the system.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, of New York, has announced that he is drafting legislation that would address some of these loopholes in the federal background check system. Schumer is proposing a system of monetary rewards for states that submit necessary records to the federal database and penalties for states that do not. Moreover, he’s urging the Justice Department to review and report on all states’ standards for involuntary commitment and suggest best practices that would potentially become a standard for new policy. As a corollary, he’s urging Congress to restore full funding to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is currently under threat of deep budget cuts.
That’s a start. Following the shooting death of innocent bystander Grisel Sanchez in Dorchester July 28, both Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans decried the lax gun laws in neighboring states that provide what Evans has called “a neverending supply of guns” onto Boston’s streets. And even presidential candidate Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — a conservative Republican governor of a Southern state, with an A+ rating from the NRA — lamented that, given his background, Houser would never have been able to buy a gun in Lafayette. (Of course, Jindal later commented that people should be allowed to bring guns into movie theaters.) Weaknesses in the federal system threaten everyone.
Even if it were working perfectly, the background check system is not a panacea. Gun control advocates point out that 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from background checks because the seller is a private party operating online or at gun shows. Still, until lawmakers are able to defy the deep-pocketed gun lobby, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is all we’ve got. Congress should support Schumer’s efforts to close the loopholes, mandating state participation in the system and broadening the narrow definitions covering potential gun buyers who have a history of mental illness.