Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Nerses Karapetyan, from Glendale, buys a gun at the Gun Gallery in Glendale, California, 18 April 2007. The massacre at Virginia Tech has ignited fresh talk in the Democratic-led US Congress about tightening US gun laws but it is doubtful enough lawmakers will tackle the politically charged issue.
Last month, security officers shot and killed a gunman who’d opened fire on them outside the Pentagon. The shooter — armed with two handguns — wounded two officers before they were able to stop him. The gunman was John Patrick Bedell — a former Irvine resident with a history of mental illness. That made it tougher for him to buy a gun — but not impossible.
Look into Bedell’s background and you’ll find a former San Jose State engineering major, a skilled computer technician, and someone who grew and used marijuana. You’ll also find a 36-year-old man treated on and off for a bipolar disorder.
That record of mental illness is what stopped a gun store in California from selling a weapon to Bedell in January. Paul Helmke is President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He says California’s restrictions on gun sales to people with mental illness are tough.
"In California," he says, "you can get into the system where you’re prohibited from having a gun if you’ve been detained or apprehended for examination of your mental condition, if you’ve been treated for a mental illness or disorder, if a person has communicated to a licensed psychotherapist a serious threat of physical violence against an identifiable victim, a threshold that allows a lot more people that people have concerns about."
The head of the state’s Bureau of Firearms says the fact that Bedell couldn’t buy a gun in California is proof that “our system worked.” But 19 days after he was stopped from buying a gun in California, Bedell purchased one — a 9 millimeter Ruger — at a gun show in Nevada.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca says gun laws are always challenged by the market forces in other states. Baca says California has the strongest gun laws of any state in America. But, "the key is anyone can leave California and buy a gun anywhere else that doesn’t have strong gun laws. Whether you’re mentally ill or stable, either way, guns are easily accessible because states have different policies."
Outside of California, most private sales at gun shows don’t require a background check. But even if Bedell had gone to a gun store where background checks are required, Paul Helmke says it’s possible his history of mental illness wouldn’t have shown up anyway. "A lot of people don’t realize how weak our background check system is in this country."
That system was set up in 1981 after President Reagan was wounded by John Hinckley Jr. — a mentally disturbed man obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity — and has been in psychiatric care ever since.
The background check database launched after the Reagan shooting is supposed to keep people like Hinckley — or John Patrick Bedell — from buying guns. The Brady Campaign’s Paul Helmke says when the Virginia Tech shootings happened three years ago, records at the time showed that at least 2.5 million people in the U.S. had been committed involuntarily to mental institutions at one time or another. But the background check database listed only 238,000 with serious mental disorders. Helmke did the math: "close to 90 percent of the mentally dangerous records in the U.S. are not in the background check system," he says.
One gun rights organization wants to keep it that way.
Gun Owners of America opposes the idea of doctors replacing the judicial system. Larry Pratt is Executive Director of Gun Owners of America, which claims more than 300,000 members. Pratt says a judge should decide if someone is too unstable to buy a gun.
"Due process has been the mainstay of American liberty, and English liberty before that, going back to the 13th century," he says. "And for us to just throw it away to some medical quack who has no legal competence whatsoever, who isn’t subjected to an adversarial procedure, who doesn’t have to face an opposing attorney, is like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and Communist Cuba."
The National Rifle Association — with more than 4 million members — doesn’t share that view. It took no position on recent legislation to improve FBI background checks required for gun sales.
Last year, the federal government offered $10 million in grants to help states update their lists of people whose mental instability disqualifies them from buying guns.