Mental health screening for gun owners: the solution to gun control?

Have you noticed the pattern? A mass shooting occurs, we talk about gun control, and then we do nothing.

Maybe it’s because gun control means putting limits on second amendment rights, and it’s not easy to limit constitutionally protected rights. It’s not supposed to be easy.

Still, by now we know the statistics: we have, by far, the biggest gun problem of any developed country. And, the number of mass shootings is increasing.

One solution our president talks about is increasing our mental health screening. Let’s take a look at what this is and whether or not it could work.

Mental health screening is the solution to gun violence.

mental illness

Federal law states that a person can be prevented from buying or owning a firearm due to a mental illness under two conditions: if he is involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, or if a court declares him to be mentally incompetent.

States are supposed to send mental health records to the federal government for a federal database for background checks. They don’t always do this.

Also, the federal database for background checks is supposed to be checked for mental health records (and other records, like criminal charges) when a person tries to buy a gun. But only dealers are required to do this; people who sell guns at gun shows or person-to-person, for example, don’t necessarily run background checks.

This is another area that would benefit from rules and their enforcement.

red flag laws

There has been a shift away from the uphill battle of making a mental health diagnosis in order to seize weapons toward a behavior-based model built on an untrained person making a recommendation to a judge that someone is dangerous.

Red flag laws are rules that allow family members or police to get a court order to temporarily limit gun ownership if a person appears to be dangerous (but not necessarily a candidate for a diagnosis of mental illness by a professional).

The person seeking the order fills out a form showing evidence of danger, then the court holds an expedited hearing. If a judge agrees, guns are removed for a period of time anywhere from a few weeks to a year. It doesn’t require a mental-health diagnosis or a criminal arrest. That’s key to having broader protection for the public but also greater opposition from civil rights groups.

Thirteen states have adopted red flag gun laws, most of which happened after the Parkland school shooting.

President Trump has pushed for all states to adopt red flag rules.

Mental health screening is not enough.

individual rights and red flag rules

After the Parkland shooting, Rhode Island tried to pass red flag rules for its state.

But the American Civil Liberties Union opposed it. “We are deeply concerned about its breadth, its impact on civil liberties, and the precedent it sets for the use of coercive measures against individuals not because they are alleged to have committed any crime, but because somebody believes they might, someday, commit one,” they wrote in response.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) argues that a judge’s order to take a person’s weapon may violate Second Amendment rights when no crime has been committed.

mental illness and murder

Mental illness is not the cause of most cases of gun violence; but it is associated with gun violence.

For example, the NY Times reports that an analysis of 350 mass killers, it looked like about 22 percent had psychosis. In the general population the rate is about 1 percent.

Alcohol and drug use increase the risk of violent crime much more than mental illness–the increase is about 7-times–regardless of whether the person has mental illness.

Should alcoholics have their gun rights suspended?

Should all mental health patients lose their right to gun ownership? What would this do to our willingness to seek out mental health services?

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