The mantra has become all too familiar.
The nation doesn’t need new gun laws. We just need to enforce the laws that are already on the books.
Problem is, it has been nearly impossible to enforce the one measure that virtually everyone agrees with: not selling firearms to people who are severely and dangerously mentally ill. Too often, people who might fit that definition do not show up in background checks. And so they are sold guns.
Sometimes, they take those weapons and commit horrendous acts, killing innocent people. The massacre of 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School certainly qualified.
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Remember that emotion? The nation was shaken to its core. Surely something will be done now, people said at the time.
Then-President Barack Obama did do something. The administration waded into this complicated issue, giving gun sellers more tools to determine if someone believed to be dangerously mentally ill was attempting to purchase a firearm.
This week, President Donald Trump undid that measure. With the help of Congress, he nixed the much-needed protocols Obama put in place.
The National Rifle Association applauded Trump’s cooperation. Others set about distorting what the Obama regulation, which would have gone into effect in December, would have entailed.
Obama focused on this pertinent question: If a person who is mentally ill receives financial benefits because they cannot work and needs help managing their finances, can’t those factors also help determine whether that person should have access to firearms?
It’s a reasonable question.
The now-rescinded regulation would have added people who receive Supplemental Security Income payments or disability insurance benefits for mental health reasons to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The individuals who were affected would have been notified orally and in writing. And there were avenues for appeal.
The rule would have applied to about 75,000 people who had gone through the long process of being “adjudicated as mentally defective.”
Because states have been lax in reporting people to the background check system, gun sellers can claim that they are not at fault in selling firearms to people who are dangerous to themselves and others.
Clearly, there are complexities to consider. Privacy advocates worry about records being passed between federal agencies. Mental health advocates do not want patients to be stigmatized. Most mentally ill people are not violent. And no magic formulas exist to predict future violent behavior.
And yet, time and again the nation has been horrified when someone with a long history of severe mental illness has easily and legally acquired firearms and started shooting.
Public safety must be considered, weighed along with the Second Amendment.
There’s a reason the unraveling of this common-sense safeguard has drawn relatively little attention. Congress employed the Congressional Review Act, which allows simple majorities of the House and Senate to undo the regulations of a previous administration.
Trump signed the measure in private Tuesday. No ceremony, no fanfare. No doubt, he was hoping the public wasn’t paying attention.
That may be the case until the next time someone with severe mental illness assembles an arsenal of firearms and cuts short innocent lives.
Then the nation will take notice.