Gun rules should target histories of violence

The News TribuneSeptember 24, 2013 

It might be a good idea to give the term “gun control” a rest.

Those two words could mean anything, including confiscation. That vague threat alienates reasonable gun owners, who — like most people — want firearms kept out of the hands of criminals and the violently disturbed.

Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in the nation’s capital last week, fit the common profile of a mass shooter almost perfectly: He was a youngish male with history of poorly treated psychosis and outbursts of violence.

The only factor apparently missing was a tendency toward drug or alcohol abuse — but that, too, may emerge as we learn more about him.

He fits right in with the notorious likes of Jared Loughner, who shot Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in 2011; James Holmes, who killed 12 in Aurora, Colo., last year; and Seung-hui Cho, who slaughtered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Maurice Clemmons, who gunned down four Lakewood police officers in 2009, also fits the description.

No system compatible with a free society could prevent all mass shootings. But some shootings might be prevented by background checks and administrative safeguards that cast a wider net for both common felons and threatening, severely ill people.

Current federal law takes a ridiculous approach to firearms and mental illness.

The law prevents the sale of guns to psychiatric patients who have been found mentally incompetent by a court. In reality, most people involuntarily committed to treatment are harmless. And disturbed people who’ve been through intensive treatment — court-ordered or not — are likely to be far less dangerous than those who’ve received minimal treatment or none at all.

Court action is the wrong trigger. Instead, mental health practitioners ought to be able to alert police and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when a patient looks like he’s ready to explode. That patient ought to be flagged and temporarily denied access to guns until doctors or other authorities can take a closer look at him.

Supporters of “gun control” have lamented the fact that legislatures have actually expanded Americans’ gun rights since 20 schoolchildren and six adults were massacred at an elementary school in Newton, Conn., last December.

Advocates of gun rights are winning this argument, in large measure because so many of their opponents appear eager to impose restrictions on peaceful, responsible gun owners.

What backfires most, perhaps, are efforts to ban particular models of guns, especially military-style semiautomatic rifles.

When it comes to killing, a gun is a gun is a gun — and 97 percent of firearms deaths involve handguns, not “assault” rifles or shotguns. Even mass shooters overwhelmingly prefer handguns, according to a February report compiled by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Dangerous people should be kept away from any kind of gun, period. That should be the overriding goal of firearms legislation — and only genuine fanatics will argue for the Second Amendment rights of potential mass shooters.

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