Since the slaughter of little children in Newtown, Conn., the debate has raged over what the president and Congress should do about mass shootings and easy access to guns. But pieces of this problem have been quietly shipped to the states, where the gun lobby has successfully loosened many laws, including those addressing the restoration of gun rights to felons and people with a history of mental illness.
The justification is that the right to bear arms is as sacrosanct as any other in the Constitution. Public safety be damned. So, we have dual tracks on gun restorations that mirror the marijuana issue. Felons who have been convicted of federal crimes essentially lose their gun rights. So do some people with mental illnesses. But in many states, the rights of both can be restored rather easily.
New York Times reporter Michael Luo investigated this phenomenon in depth and wrote a series of articles in November 2011. To fully understand how states have funneled guns to people who shouldn’t have them, we have to travel back to 1968 and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and widespread rioting in the streets.
Congress passed several gun control measures, including a provision that expanded the class of felons who would lose their gun rights. The National Rifle Association was on board. But eventually a fundamentalist faction took control of the NRA and launched a crusade to expand gun rights. Their first major victory came in 1986, when a bill co-sponsored by then-U.S. Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho, liberalized many firearms statutes. Though it didn’t draw much attention at the time, the law shifted the issue of gun-rights restoration to the states.
NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre is fond of saying that there are thousands of gun laws, just enforce them. It would actually be better if we eliminated some NRA-backed measures that have made it easier for felons and the mentally ill to legally possess guns. Even after the Virginia Tech University massacre by the mentally ill Seung-Hui Cho, the gun lobby successfully tweaked a congressional bill law aimed at improving record sharing among the states by tacking on a mandate for a “relief from disability,” which ensures a path to gun-rights restoration for those with a history of mental illness. Then state legislatures were pressured to keep the barriers low.
Luo, of the New York Times, wrote: “In Idaho, for example, a committee of law enforcement and mental health officials proposed requiring courts to make findings of ‘clear and convincing’ evidence, and mandating that petitioners have a recent mental health evaluation. But without the NRA’s imprimatur, the legislation went nowhere. Instead, a Republican state representative, Raul R. Labrador, who is now a congressman, worked with the NRA to draft a bill, passed last year (2010), that dropped the requirement for a mental health evaluation and lowered the standard of proof to a ‘preponderance of evidence.’ ”
Attempts to reach Labrador to ask him whether he had second thoughts were unsuccessful.
As for felons, Luo highlights a 2005 murder in Endicott, Wash. Erik Zettegren, who had two felony convictions and a history of mental health problems, shot and killed a man two months after a judge restored his gun rights. Because of state law, buttressed by a state appeals court ruling that said petitioners don’t need to prove they’re safe to have guns, judges have limited discretion in restoration cases.
Luo found many examples around the country of frightening people who had their rights restored. Some went on to commit violent crimes. One of the successful petitioners told Luo, “It’s kind of spooky, isn’t it?”
On Friday, the NRA’s LaPierre finally addressed Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, saying: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters, people that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them.”
What he didn’t say is that he’s made it easier for them to legally have guns.
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