Obama to tighten restrictions on gun ownership for the mentally ill

Executive orders call for tougher background checks for mental illness, but experts say they overlook likelier offenders

President Barack Obama is accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden and family members of Newtown school shooting victims as he speaks on gun control at the Rose Garden of the White House on April 17, 2013.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration said Friday that it would propose two executive actions tightening restrictions on the purchasing of firearms by people with mental health problems.

The Department of Justice said it would put forward changes in the federal law that would prevent people who have been directed by a court to seek psychological help from buying guns. Some states had complained that the wording of the current law was ambiguous, the administration said, so the DOJ plans to clarify that the term “committed to a mental institution” can refer both to people who have been involuntarily committed to inpatient or to outpatient psychiatric treatment.

This broadened definition might have prevented Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman who killed 32 people in a brutal massacre on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, from purchasing a gun even after a judge declared him mentally ill and ordered him to seek outpatient treatment.  Because he wasn’t institutionalized, Cho’s name wasn’t reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a federal database, although the state of Virginia has since begun reporting court orders for outpatient treatment.

In addition to the DOJ order, the Obama administration said that the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing more flexibility in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a health privacy law.

2012 report from the Government Accountability Office showed (PDF) that HIPAA laws were preventing hospitals or other health care providers in some states from sharing information with the NICS, for example.

"There is a strong public safety need for this information to be accessible,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement.

The administration emphasized that “seeking help for mental health problems or getting treatment does not make someone legally prohibited from having a firearm,” and that any increased flexibility in reporting to the background check system wouldn’t involve the reporting of general mental health visits.

The executive orders announced on Friday don’t require congressional approval, though both agencies will accept public comments before finalizing changes.

President Obama proposed sweeping gun control measures early in 2013 following the mass shooting of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., but measures to strengthen federal background checks were rejected by Congress.

Research suggests that states with broader requirements for involuntarily commitment to mental institutions have fewer firearm homicides, according to Steven P. Segal, a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the university’s Mack Center on Mental Health and Social Welfare.

Segal told Al Jazeera that most mentally ill people who commit violent crimes do so when their illness first sets in, and haven’t been institutionalized at all.

“A lot of people who are in prison for murder, and found guilty for insanity, a significant number have never been in the system,” he said. “They got to do their thing before we picked them up.”

So paying closer attention to those people who have been involuntarily committed to outpatient treatment could help to catch potential criminals that may have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

“These are people who clearly have tremendous psychological unfitness to have a gun,” said John J. Donohue, III, a professor at Stanford Law School, “but have never been adjudicated as mentally incompetent, so there’s a really gaping hole.”

He said the U.S. needs to take far more aggressive action to limit access to guns across the board. “Most other industrialized nations have taken this step, but the United States has a powerful gun lobby that is more concerned about gun sales than public safety,” Donohue added.

Other forensic psychiatry experts cautioned that while the new executive orders could help prevent gruesome mass shootings like Newtown and Virginia Tech, they fail to address the bigger picture about who commits most gun violence.

Dr. Liza Gold, a psychiatry professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, told Al Jazeera that “if we fixed every gap in the system regarding dangerous people with mental health problems, we would make no dent in the statistics” of firearm deaths.

That’s because nearly two-thirds of firearm deaths in this country, Gold said, are suicides; mass shootings account for a “less than a fraction of 1 percent” of the number of firearms deaths.

And while many people who are at risk of suicide are hospitalized or treated for potential suicide risk, that treatment is often voluntary, she said, so the laws prohibiting gun sales to patients who are involuntarily committed to mental health treatment don’t account for them.

“It’s great to find a way to capture this very small group of dangerous mentally ill people, but what we need to do is look at dangerousness across the board, with or without mental illness,” Gold said. “That’s how you’re going to make a difference in the numbers.”

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