Legislation Aims To Stop Gun Purchases by the Mentally Ill

March 7, 2013

Investigative Reports

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PistolThe case of a woman charged with attempting to shoot an official at a Charleston private school last month has spurred state and federal legislation seeking to prevent purchases by the mentally ill.

A main goal is to get certain mentally ill people into a national database that would inform gun-shop owners during background checks if someone is disqualified from buying a gun.

Alice Boland of Beaufort, who, according to authorities, threatened to assassinate then-President George W. Bush and members of Congress in 2005, faces attempted murder and other charges in the Feb. 4 incident at the Ashley Hall girls school in Charleston.

Boland pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2005 incident, though her long history of mental illness was not known when she bought a gun several days before last month’s incident, according to media reports.

The S.C. Senate and House of Representatives have three bills (S. 413, H. 3560 and H. 3564), each intended to get South Carolina to comply with a federal law to report people who are mentally ill to a database known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday held the first of two hearings on S. 413, sponsored by Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster and the subcommittee chairman.

“We have a lot of issues swirling around regarding guns,” Gregory said, noting state lawmakers must ensure the state complies with federal law.

One issue that hasn’t been addressed publicly yet in the General Assembly is how to protect the Second-Amendment gun rights of those adults who are not severely mentally ill and are not a danger to themselves or others.

“That’s a great question (determining the severity of a person’s mental illness),” said Bill Lindsey, director of the South Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, when contacted this week by The Nerve.

In a written response Wednesday to The Nerve, a spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson dismissed the idea of government overreach.

“First: This is not gun control in any way, shape or form; it imposes no restrictions or limitations on lawful gun owners,” Mark Powell wrote. “So there is no government overreach in this case.”

Powell continued: “Two: It would require communication, with law enforcement reporting the names of mentally ill people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Three: Perhaps most importantly, the names of those people who are court-adjudicated to be mentally ill would be forwarded to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That’s a very important distinction: We’re talking about those people who a court says are mentally ill.”

It has been reported since the Ashley Hall incident that South Carolina is one of 12 states not in compliance with the federal law. However, Gregory said a Wall Street Journal story he read earlier this year indicates most states don’t report data about the mentally ill to the federal government.

Like Boland, Adam Lanza, who fatally shot 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 before turning the gun on himself, also had a history of mental illness, authorities said.

“Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, we one thing we can agree on is the mentally ill shouldn’t have access to guns,” said Powell.

Wilson created a working group for this legislation comprised of state and local law enforcement groups, state lawmakers, parents of Ashley Hall students and other interested groups.

Mark Binkley, S.C. Department of Mental Health deputy director for administration and a member of the working group, told The Nerve Wednesday that South Carolina could draft its own gun law and screen out certain groups of people, though he added, “I don’t see that happening.”

Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, testified during the subcommittee hearing that the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) will have the only access to the federal database.

Binkley told The Nerve after the hearing when someone is reported to the database, SLED needs several pieces of identification of who is being added to the database so there isn’t a case of mistaken identity later.

Although S. 413 would require persons found by a court to be mentally ill to be added to the federal database, it does not distinguish serious mental-illness diagnoses from less severe forms of mental illness.

The bill, which has 14 co-sponsors from both parties, also creates a mechanism to restore gun rights to those who have been disqualified from owning a gun. Under the legislation, a person could petition a probate court to start the process, which includes a hearing and a final decision by a judge.

Binkley said the working group recently wanted to know how common it was in other states for a disqualified person to seek restored gun rights. Of nine states that reported data between 2009 and the present, no more than five people in any of those states requested that their rights be restored, he said.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Michel Faliero, a mother of an Ashley Hall student  and a supporter of the Senate bill, told the subcommittee that probate judges review a list of rights involving conservatorships or guardianships of senior citizens with Alzheimer’s disease, and that a judge has informed Ashley Hall parents that “gun rights” should be added to the review list. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and a subcommittee member, said that issue should be addressed in the bill.

In a related matter, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and several of his Senate colleagues on Wednesday introduced federal legislation to tighten reporting requirements to stop gun purchases by the mentally ill. Graham cited the Boland incident in Charleston, according to media reports.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.