Scot Lehigh

The debate we need to have

By Scot Lehigh
January 14, 2011

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PRESIDENT OBAMA tried to comfort the nation on Wednesday, but he failed to engage the discussion this country really needs.

Yes, cooling the vitriolic rhetoric in favor of a more civil tone is certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished. Still, the left-wing charge that right-wing anti-government rhetoric somehow precipitated suspect Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree is one that lacks credible supporting evidence. What’s more, the predictable partisan debate over causation has gotten us sidetracked from a more important one about prevention.

“How could such a thing happen?’’ University of Arizona President Robert Shelton asked during Wednesday’s memorial service.

Let’s be blunt. Some of these increasingly common murderous rampages happen for a very basic reason: In this country, people who are mentally unbalanced have easy access to guns.

Why? Because in too many states, as in Washington DC, the gun lobby has essentially won the debate over even eminently reasonable gun-control measures. The most obvious example of the National Rifle Association’s clout is the demise of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 after a Republican Congress refused to renew it. If that ban law had still been in effect, Loughner would have had to reload after 10 shots, says Dennis Henigan, vice president at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Instead, he was able to fire at least 31 shots before stopping to reload, at which point he was finally tackled.

But to the gun lobby and others of its absolutist ilk, that ban was an unacceptable limit on Second Amendment rights. The NRA has also pushed a past legal challenge to the Brady Law and mounted a concerted campaign to eliminate state restrictions on the right to carry a gun.

A second example: So skittish is Congress about crossing the gun lobby that lawmakers have refused to keep people on the federal terrorist watchlist from buying firearms. Of course, even if Congress showed the fortitude to do that, terrorists could still exploit the infamous gun-show loophole, which lets buyers purchase firearms without any background check whatsoever.

“In 33 states, private individuals are allowed to sell guns to anybody, with no limit on the number, no background checks, nothing,’’ says John Rosenthal, chairman of Stop Handgun Violence.

Addressing those issues should be simple common sense. Keeping guns away from the mentally ill is much more complicated. Under federal law, one has to have been adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous or to have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution to be denied the right to purchase a firearm.

To stop evil-doers like Loughner, who was obviously both mentally ill and menacing but didn’t run afoul of either of those narrow restrictions, new laws or regulations would have to go further, probably allowing law enforcement authorities some discretion in deciding who can and can’t buy a weapon.

Massachusetts has such a system — and one of the nation’s lowest rates of gun deaths — but broader efforts to move in such a direction would have to overcome opposition from the gun lobby.

There are also privacy issues with, say, records of college disciplinary incidents that might help law-enforcement officials arrive at such a judgment. Add in the patchwork of federal, state, and local gun laws, and arriving at some sort of universal system would be a challenging task. But it is surely not beyond the capacity of determined policy-makers.

Yes, such a system would expand the government’s power to deny gun ownership to broader categories of mentally troubled individuals. And it might well involve a short investigatory delay for other gun-buyers.

Ultimately, however, the question boils down to this: Wouldn’t the added element of public safety be worth the overall inconvenience to gun buyers? No doubt the NRA would squawk, but my bet is that for most Americans, the answer would be yes.

As we mourn the victims of yet another massacre, that’s the debate Americans really need to have.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at