Bill Advances to Prevent the Mentally Ill from Buying Guns

March 22, 2013

Investigative Reports

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HandgunA state House bill that would prevent the mentally ill from purchasing or possessing guns cleared another hurdle Thursday, while separate legislation that would allow concealed weapons in classrooms was tabled because of time constraints.

Testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Anna Murray, spokesperson for a group of concerned parents from Ashley Hall, a Charleston private girls’ school, described at length the horror that unfolded Feb. 4 when, according to authorities, Alice Boland used a gun she purchased from a Walterboro gun shop days before to try to shoot a school administrator.

Although Boland pulled the trigger, the gun didn’t fire, authorities said. She also is accused of pointing the gun at a teacher.

“Our state’s lack of reporting has made a victim of all of us,” Murray said. “This is not a hypothetical situation. We lived it.”

Boland was charged in 2005 after federal authorities said she threatened to kill then-President George W. Bush, but she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and the federal charges were dropped several years later, according to the (Charleston) Post & Courier newspaper, citing court records. After the 2005 incident, she was forcefully treated for schizophrenia, the newspaper reported.

To purchase the semi-automatic pistol used in the Ashley Hall incident, Boland filled out the necessary background-check form and was approved, though according to a federal indictment released last week, she made a false statement to buy the gun.

Under a state House bill, Boland would have been prevented from purchasing or possessing a firearm as a person who previously had been “adjudicated mentally incapacitated or committed to a mental institution.”

The bill, H. 3560, is the result of a bipartisan effort that included Republican S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. Stavrinakis, who has a niece at Ashley Hall, also spoke at Thursday’s hearing.

“This is a public-safety reporting bill,” he said. “In truth, that’s all this is.”

“It addresses that we have a glaring loophole in the law in South Carolina,” Stavrinakis continued. “It would be absurd to sit by and allow a person to lawfully purchase a gun who legally is insane. We just can’t allow that.”

The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg and a member of the subcommittee, also spoke about the legislation.

“This is strictly a reporting bill,” Tallon said, adding that the idea is simply for South Carolina to join “the 38 states that currently report the information we’re talking about” to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana are the only Southern states that don’t report to the federal database, while neighbors North Carolina and Georgia each report their cases to the NICS, records show.

“This is as well-thought-out a bill as I’ve seen,” Tallon told fellow lawmakers.

Under the legislation, persons deemed mentally ill by a court would be reported to the State Law Enforcement Division, which would forward the information to the federal database.

The problem in South Carolina has been that without clear guidance in existing legislation, probate judges across the state have been leery of reporting their cases, Jeff Moore of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association told subcommittee members.

“This legislation gives them the clear guidance they need to do that,” he said.

Also testifying on behalf of the legislation was Mark Binkley, deputy director of the S.C. Department of Mental Health.

“(The department) supports this bill,” Binkley told legislators. “It’s important to equitably enforce existing law, and we’re pleased by this bill because it also allows for people to petition for restoration who have been disqualified of their rights.”

Adam Piper, a representative from the Attorney General’s Office, stressed that the legislation was not meant to punish the mentally ill, but rather would enforce existing reporting requirements that a majority of states comply with.

“This is not a gun bill; this is a mental health registry bill,” he said. “It is only for those who have been adjudicated mentally ill. On ATF Form 4473 there’s a box, 11-f, which asks if you’ve ever been adjudicated mentally defective. This legislation would prevent someone checking that box ‘yes’ from being able to purchase a firearm over the counter.”

Speaking after the hearing to Ashley Hall parents and faculty who made the trip from Charleston, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, assured them the bill would become law.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes, parliamentary-wise, to get this done,” said Quinn, who is the second vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a supporter of the bill.

For Murray, the thought of what might have happened had Boland only known how to operate a firearm – she attempted to fire the weapon several times before being stopped but was unable to apparently because she did not know how to load a cartridge into the chamber, authorities said.

“We can’t forget how close we came to tragedy,” Murray said. “We can never forget.”

The subcommittee voted unanimously to report the bill favorably to the full House Judiciary Committee for consideration. Present were General Laws Subcommittee members Derham Cole, R-Spartanburg; Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville; and Joe McEachern, D-Richland.

The subcommittee was scheduled to hear testimony on H. 3160, a bill that would allow a public school employee with a concealed weapons permit to possess a firearm on school grounds. But testimony on the other bill ran long, and a vote to hear testimony on H. 3160 at a later date was approved.

Aiken can be reached at (803) 200-8809 or ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.