During legislative negotiations following the Virginia Tech school shooting in 2007, the N.R.A. won concessions allowing the mentally ill to eventually reclaim their right to purchase guns. It seems the stipulation was intended for veterans who, because of mental injuries sustained during battle, had lost the right to carry arms. Now, more states are returning the right of gun ownership to the mentally ill, but information sharing between federal and state agencies is lax and many judges are unaware of a claimant's mental health history despite federal law prohibiting the "mentally defective" from owning guns.
While the nation celebrated its independence this weekend, gun ownership has become one right seemingly wrapped up in what it means to be American. It is otherwise difficult to explain the muted legislative action after each tragedy in which an innocent person is gunned down, despite the public's outpouring of remorse after each occurrence. The degree to which gun ownership is considered a right makes regulation difficult because distinctions become muddled in minutia, making them extremely difficult for the legal system to execute.
Case in Point:
PULASKI, Va. — In May 2009, Sam French hit bottom, once again. A relative found him face down in his carport “talking gibberish,” according to court records. He later told medical personnel that he had been conversing with a bear in his backyard and hearing voices. His family figured he had gone off his medication for bipolar disorder, and a judge ordered him involuntarily committed — the fourth time in five years he had been hospitalized by court order.
When Mr. French’s daughter discovered that her father’s commitment meant it was illegal for him to have firearms, she and her husband removed his cache of 15 long guns and three handguns, and kept them after Mr. French was released in January 2010 on a new regime of mood-stabilizing drugs.
Ten months later, he appeared in General District Court — the body that handles small claims and traffic infractions — to ask a judge to restore his gun rights. After a brief hearing, in which Mr. French’s lengthy history of relapses never came up, he walked out with an order reinstating his right to possess firearms.
The next day, Mr. French retrieved his guns. “The judge didn’t ask me a whole lot,” said Mr. French, now 62. “He just said: ‘How was I doing? Was I taking my medicine like I was supposed to?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
Across the country, states are increasingly allowing people like Mr. French, who lost their firearm rights because of mental illness, to petition to have them restored. A handful of states have had such restoration laws on their books for some time, but with little notice, more than 20 states have passed similar measures since 2008. This surge can be traced to a law passed by Congress after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech that was actually meant to make it harder for people with mental illness to get guns.
As a condition of its support for the measure, the National Rifle Association extracted a concession: the inclusion of a mechanism for restoring firearms rights to those who lost them for mental health reasons.
The intent of these state laws is to enable people to regain the right to buy and possess firearms if it is determined that they are not a threat to public safety. But an examination of restoration procedures across the country, along with dozens of cases, shows that the process for making that determination is governed in many places by vague standards and few specific requirements.
States have mostly entrusted these decisions to judges, who are often ill-equipped to conduct investigations from the bench. Many seemed willing to simply give petitioners the benefit of the doubt. The results often seem haphazard.
At least a few hundred people with histories of mental health issues already get their gun rights back each year. The number promises to grow, since most of the new state laws are just beginning to take effect. And in November, the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to the federal legislation by establishing a rights restoration process for more than 100,000 veterans who have lost their gun privileges after being designated mentally incompetent by the agency.
The issue goes to the heart of the nation’s complicated relationship with guns, testing the delicate balance between the need to safeguard the public and the dictates of what the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be a fundamental constitutional right.
Thankyou NewYork Times .