Yesterday President Obama began the largest push for gun control in decades with a list of proposals for congressional action and series of Executive Orders that the president signed unilaterally. A comprehensive list of the president’s proposals in the New York Times reveals that the president’s proposals would not have prevented most of the recent mass murders.
While the president’s wish list is long, it conspicuously excludes the one thing that could have prevented several of the recent shootings. President Obama and Vice President Biden did not ask congress to expand instant background checks to include mental health information. As a recent Examiner article discussed, most mass killers have a history or can be reasonably suspected of having mental illness.
While the president’s plan does call for increased spending on mental health programs for young people and the opening of national dialogue on mental health, it does not tie mental health to gun purchases. Instead the president concentrated on tried and failed ideas such as an “assault weapons ban” and limit on the capacity of magazines. These ideas failed to reduce crime when they were enacted in the 1990s. When they expired, the crime rate did not increase as many liberals had predicted.
One of the president’s Executive Orders also attempts to clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prevent doctors from asking patients about guns in their homes. In reality, an amendment to the ACA’s section 2716 specifically states that health or wellness programs under the law “may not require the disclosure or collection of any information relating to… lawfully possessed firearms or ammunition….” The law also prohibits data collection on the possession and use of lawful firearms and ammunition. The president is essentially attempting to use an Executive Order to amend a law enacted by congress.
The big question is whether the president’s proposals would have prevented recent mass shootings like the one in Newtown. The answer seems to be no, especially in light of the fact that existing assault weapons would remain in the hands of their owners.
Adam Lanza did not purchase the guns that he used to murder 20 children and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012. According to the Daily Mail, Lanza stole his guns from his mother, Nancy. Adam shot Nancy in the face with one of her legally purchased weapons. He then stole her car and drove to Sandy Hook Elementary. According to the New York Times, the school was locked, but Lanza shot his way through the door.
A few days earlier on Dec. 11, Jacob Tyler Roberts killed two people in the Clackamas Mall in Portland, Ore. The rifle used by Roberts was stolen from one of his friends according to the Associated Press. According to Portland’s News Channel 8, Roberts killed himself after being interrupted by a man with a legally concealed handgun, who may well have kept the death toll from being much higher.
In a third December shooting, William Spengler killed two firefighters who were responding to a fire he had set in Rochester, N.Y. Spengler, a convicted felon, could not legally purchase or own a gun. NBC News reported that Spengler’s suicide note revealed that a straw purchaser, 24-year-old Dawn Nguyen, bought the guns for him. Nguyen is facing federal and state charges for making false statements in the purchase of the guns.
According to CBS News, James Holmes, the “Dark Knight” killer from Colorado, purchased his guns legally from three different stores over a period of several months. The guns were purchased well in advance of the Aurora, Co. mass murder. The stores performed the required background checks, but Holmes had a clean record at the time.
ABC News reports that a University of Colorado psychiatrist who had counseled Holmes warned the Aurora Police Department about Holmes several weeks before the murders. The information was not placed into the instant background check system and may have come too late to stop the purchases in any event. The psychiatrist allegedly rejected an offer by the police to put Holmes on a 72 hour psychiatric hold according to Yahoo News.
In the wake of the Aurora murders, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, led an effort to reform state mental health laws. The Wall St. Journal reports that the reform modernized Colorado’s commitment laws and provides that commitment records be crosschecked for gun purchases. The Journal notes that the reforms also protect the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.
Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson killer who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, purchased his gun from a sporting goods store after passing a federally required instant background check. The Christian Science Monitor notes that Loughner’s background check was clear because he had never been declared mentally unfit by a court. Blogger Rob Doar also points out that Loughner lied on his instant background check application, a felony.
The Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung-Hui, purchased his guns legally in spite of the fact that a judge had deemed him an “imminent danger to himself” in December 2005 according to CNN. Because the judge ordered outpatient treatment instead of committing Cho to a hospital, his mental health history did not show up on his background check. Cho bought his guns in separate purchases more than a month before his killing spree.
The Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, obtained their guns illegally. The Violence Policy Center says that several guns were bought for the teens by a straw purchaser. One gun was sold to the pair by a private seller who knew that they were under the legal age to buy a pistol. The straw purchaser, Klebold’s girlfriend Robyn Anderson, was never prosecuted, but the individual seller, Mark Manes, served 19 months in prison according to Yahoo. There is speculation that Anderson was not prosecuted in exchange for her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
Since most of the killers obtained their guns illegally, either through theft, straw purchases or fraud, it is unlikely that President Obama’s new laws would have prevented any of the mass killings. However, Colorado-style mental health reforms that would tie mental health records to the National Instant Check System and make it easier to mandate treatment for the mentally ill who pose a danger to themselves and others might well prevent some killers from obtaining a weapon. Stiff penalties for straw purchasers and enforcement of existing laws against fraud are also needed.
It will never be possible to completely end killing sprees. As Examiner previously reported, countries with much stricter gun control that the U.S. have had even worse shooting sprees. Even an outright ban of guns would leave many other weapons available. The worst school killing in U.S. history was committed with bombs, not guns. On the same day that Adam Lanza attacked Sandy Hook Elementary, a man in China injured 22 children in their school with a knife according to CBC News. This was the latest in a series of knife attacks against Chinese children. Even the presence of armed guards, an idea endorsed by the National Rifle Association, cannot guarantee that a determined murderer would be unsuccessful.
Perhaps the best advice on preventing school violence came from Paul Regnier, a spokesman for the Fairfax, Va. school system after the Virginia Tech murders. Speaking to the Roanoke Times, Regnier said, "A principal once told me, 'we don't need metal detectors at the schools; we need mental detectors.’”