Since the powerful gun lobby blocked virtually every piece of gun-related legislation in Congress following the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama has turned to his executive power to try curbing gun violence.
On Friday, the administration announced it would order changes aimed at keeping weapons from the mentally ill and improving the badly flawed national background check system.
They are needed and overdue changes.
The first step is to strengthen the FBI’s instant criminal background check system, which gun dealers are required to use to screen for felons, the severely mentally ill and others prohibited from buying guns. The FBI will be required to do better at telling states what information must be released to the system and the administration has eased some medical privacy roadblocks to allow states to submit better information.
The new rules will also clarify that the term “committed to a mental institution” includes involuntary inpatient as well as outpatient commitments — something that was left unclear in the past. The National Rifle Association has specifically called for an active mental health database. This is a path to getting that accomplished and they should welcome this change.
The president correctly acknowledged that “the vast majority of Americans who experience a mental illness are not violent.” But, he said, in some cases when people with a mental illness do not receive the treatment they need they can become violent. To that end, the new rules are not overly intrusive as they relate to routine mental health care people receive and the changes won’t necessarily prohibit someone seeking mental health treatment from owning a gun.
The changes are a small, but important step in improving the chances that violent mentally ill people won’t get a gun in their hands.
Just as important, however, should be an ongoing commitment from society and government to do a better job of providing mental health care to those who need it. That is something that has for too long been neglected.