A state law passed with the goal of reducing access to guns by the mentally ill has been a failure.
Farron Barksdale bought a semi-automatic rifle in December 2003, while he was on leave from a mental health treatment program. Days later, he used the gun to kill two Athens police officers, Sgt. Larry Russell and officer Tony Mims.
Barksdale was able to buy the gun, it turned out, because the state was not providing data on involuntary commitments to the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System, known as NICS. Gun dealers use the system as a quick check to determine whether a prospective buyer is barred from gun ownership.
Even with complete cooperation from states, NICS is far from fool-proof. At best, it only prevents felons and people whose mental illness has resulted in an involuntary commitment from buying a gun from a dealer.
The Alabama Legislature, however, wisely concluded that it should at least make sure NICS had involuntary commitment data. Some tragedies would be averted.
The problem is that the law it passed in 2004 had a huge loophole. Probate courts may only report involuntary commitments to NICS when a police officer testifies the person used a weapon or was a threat to use a weapon. That rarely happens.
State probate judges added only four names to the NICS database in 2012, even though thousands of Alabamians were involuntarily committed as a result of mental illness. About 250 Alabama records have been added to NICS since the law passed in 2004, a tiny fraction of the state’s involuntary commitments.
The state law includes a little-used appeal process. Because the procedure does not meet due-process requirements, its main significance is to prevent the state from applying for federal grants under the NICS Act Record Improvement Program.
There are no home runs in controlling America’s rampant gun violence. The issues are complex, and emotions surrounding gun control are intense.
No single law will solve the problem of gun violence or of mass shootings, but the state Legislature should at least look for easy fixes.
Amending the 2004 law — so that all involuntary commitments are added to the NICS database and so that the appeals process does not prevent the state from receiving federal grants — would be a good start.
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