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Lax Gun Laws Amplify the Negative Effects of Mental Illness

David Callahan

Last Friday, a disturbed man walked into a primary school in central China with a knife and stabbed 22 children and adult. All of them survived. 

But when a disturbed man walked into a school the same day in Newtown, Connecticut with three high-powered automatic weapons, nearly all of his victims would die in a horrific tragedy.

In China, it is illegal for ordinary citizens to own guns, with a few narrow exceptions for sports and hunting. The penalty for having a gun illegally is not very severe, but anyone caught using a gun in a crime gets an extra five years in prison.

Now, to be sure, the connection between gun ownership rates and gun violence is not so simple. European countries like Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden have some of the highest gun ownership rates in the world — yet also have very low death rates by firearms. 

Still, it does seem obvious that having lots of guns lying around — and no nation has more than the U.S. — increases the destructive effects of mental illness on society. 

Not much is known about Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, but more information is emerging about his mental problems. At some level, of course, he had to be mentally ill to massacre classrooms full of children for no reason. 

Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 people, was profoundly mentally ill. The Aurora shooter James Holmes sought treatment for mental illness before opening fire in a Colorado movie theater. Jared Loughner, the Arizona shooter who tried to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords, was also disturbed. The list goes on. 

There will always be mental illness in societies. But thanks to lax gun laws, deranged people in the United States can easily become heavily armed deranged people. People with mental illness are not legally allowed to buy guns, but they often can — and easily. According to a study last year, Seung-Hui Cho "was a prohibited purchaser under the law, but he was able to buy the guns he used to kill 32 people because his mental health records were never submitted to the national database." Jared Loughner, though clearly an unstable person, passed two background checks to buy the high-powered guns he used.

In fact, according to that same study, millions of people who are not legally allowed to buy guns are not in a national database of prohibited buyers. In Virginia, which became one of the best states in this area after the Virginia Tech shooting, tens of thousands of Virginians with mental illness are not in the federal database that the state uses for background checks. 

Many states barely even submit mental health records to the database, and the federal government has limited clout to force them to under law. As of last year, 23 states had submitted fewer than 100 such records to the database; seventeen states had submitted fewer than ten; and four states had submitted none at all. In addition, many federal agencies with mental health data do not share these records with the database, contrary to law. 

All of which is to say that, in many places, there is nothing to stop seriously mental ill people from legally buying guns. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to fix this problem but has been opposed by — guess who — the NRA. 

That's how extreme the gun rights lobby is.

In any case, Adam Lanza found his guns at home, where his mother — who he shot — legally owned them. Other deranged killers also armed themselves at home using their parents' weapons. So the bigger problem here is lots of guns lying around in a society with many mentally ill people. That's a bad combination, as we were reminded yet again yesterday.

We need way stricter controls on mentally ill people getting guns, and we need them now. Congress should impose a moratorium on all gun sales until that database is fixed. And long term, we need stricter controls on gun ownership by everyone. 

Read War At Home by Bob Herbert