The tragedy last week at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic is yet another mass shooting in a state that has seen too many of them. The list includes the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2012 Aurora Theater Shooting. After the theater shooting, Colorado strengthened a few of its gun laws making it illegal to possess magazines with more than 15 rounds and requiring universal background checks on all gun sales and transfers.
I decided to do a quick look at how Colorado’s gun laws compare to five states I checked at random—Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois and California. I looked at the answers to four questions:
1. Is a state permit required to purchase a gun?
2. Is there a firearm registration requirement?
3. Is there an assault weapon ban?
4. Is an owner required to have a license for the gun?
In Colorado, the answers to all those questions is NO. Also, a website called Tanner Gun Show claims that background checks take 10 to 15 minutes in Colorado. (This is under the FAQ on their site. According to their calendar, they are sponsoring a gun show in Denver this Saturday.)
So how does this compare to other states I randomly looked at?
In Texas, like Colorado, the answers to all the questions are NO. The same goes for Florida. But not so in Massachusetts, Illinois and California. In Massachusetts, the answers are almost the opposite: 1) a permit is needed to purchase a gun, 2) there is no firearm registration but all transfers are recorded, 3) there is an assault weapons ban and 4) an owner license is required. In Illinois, the answers are 1) YES, 2) NO, 3) NO, and 4) YES. Finally, in California, the answers are 1) partial, 2) NO for long guns, YES for handguns, 3) YES and 4) NO.
As is evident from my quick check of state gun laws, states determine a number of the requirements for the purchase and possession of guns and there is no uniformity in those requirements.
What about a mental health records check? According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, people with mental illness are able to pass background checks and obtain guns, presumably even when they are known to be dangerous. Federal law prohibits licensed dealers from selling to individuals with a history of certain mental illnesses. A background check should determine if there is such a history. But the background checks are often incomplete because states cannot be forced to disclose information about such people to the federal or state agencies that perform background checks. States can volunteer the information but apparently many fail to do so comprehensively. By the way, the federal law that prohibits licensed dealers from selling guns to someone with a history of certain mental illnesses does not cover unlicensed, private sellers. However, since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, in which 32 people were killed, state reporting of mental health records has significantly increased though not uniformly across all states.
This begs the question—could the 2012 Colorado theater shooting have been avoided? Civil suits have been filed arguing the university didn’t do enough to warn of Holmes’s homicidal thoughts and plans.
Separate from the mental illness issue, a person may be disqualified from purchasing a gun if, for example, there is a restraining order against him. Yet, purchases can easily be made through private sellers who don’t have to do background checks. Remember the 2012 shooting at a Wisconsin spa? The shooter, Radcliffe Franklin Haughton, killed his estranged wife and two others, before committing suicide. Haughton’s wife had a restraining order against him which prohibited him from possessing a firearm. Haughton, however, was able to buy the murder weapon online.
I’ve been conflicted about gun control for years in large part because I have relatives who are extremely responsible gun owners who value their right to bear arms. But it seems that everyone should be on the same side when it comes to background checks and mental health records reporting. If a person is known to be dangerous and mentally unstable, is there any argument in favor of that person possessing a gun? Shouldn’t their right to privacy of their mental health records be outweighed by our need to keep society safe and guns out of their hands? Likewise, if an abuser has a restraining order against him, shouldn’t there be a way to at least make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to buy a gun?