Gun Control and the Mentally Ill

The extent and manner of the government’s prerogative to regulate guns and gun ownership is a debate that isn’t going away any time soon and how to do so with respect for the mentally ill among us is a crucial component of that debate. Law enforcement...


Finding accord among the many and varied people and interests with a stake in our ongoing national debate over guns and gun legislation sometimes feels impossible, especially in our culture of sharply divided partisanship, rhetorical hyperbole, and compromise-averse lawmakers and constituencies.  The Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, the catalyst that most recently caused the gun control question – always more or less simmering beneath the crust of the political landscape – to boil over and become possibly the most hotly debated topic both on Capitol Hill and among the some 170,000,000 of the nation’s foremost internet-based constitutional scholars, demands definitive answers.

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

We all know the words that make up this single, but debatably not-really-all-that simple, sentence.  What they mean, however, few of us, it seems, can ever really agree upon.  While Second Amendment scholars, politicians, and judges debate historical context, the framer’s intent, and even the placement of commas and their consequence (the version above is that approved by Congress; a slightly different rendition ratified by the states and authenticated by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, reads “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”), I’ve always felt the central debate centers on the question of, “What did they mean by ‘well-regulated’?  What can, or should, we regulate with regard to firearms and their ownership, and how do we go about it in a way that respects the fundamental right ‘of the people to keep and bear arms” while protecting society from those who cannot be trusted to bear them responsibly?”  Those questions of regulation are at the center of the most current debate.

That there are some people who should not, because of current or past criminal behavior, or that they are so afflicted by serious mental illness that precludes responsible gun ownership, be extended the gun rights given healthier or more responsible citizens is not widely disputed.  An overwhelming majority of citizens - some studies indicate up to 90% - including gun owners and some gun rights advocates support background checks of prospective gun buyers/owners (exactly what these checks should constitute, or whether existing models should be expanded, remains hotly contested).  A recent Pew Research Center poll found about 85% of Americans supported expanding the current background check system to include gun show and private owner-to-owner sales.  A February survey conducted by Quinnipiac University revealed even broader support:  92% of respondents favored background checks for all sales, and that support only dipped by one percentage point when the results for firearm owners were tabulated.  Now, it is also important to point out that, despite increased support for stricter background checks and strong enforcement of current or future gun laws, support for the Second Amendment remains strong, with around 70% or more of poll respondents consistently expressing support.

Clearly, in the minds of most Americans, support for the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is absolutely compatible with a desire for strong regulations not only on their use but on who gets to have them.  You may or may not agree, but this is the political landscape in which the current debate is being waged, and will likely dictate its eventual outcome.

But when is someone “too mentally ill to have a gun?”

Their names and crimes lend them infamy:

Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary);

Wade Michael Page (Oak Creek, WI Sikh Temple);

James Holmes (Aurora, CO);

Jared Loughner (Tucson, AZ);

Steven Kazmierczak (Northern Illinois University);

Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech).

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