By Craig R. Whitney Bloomberg News
The Mankato Free Press
---- — Gun-control advocates think the only way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them is to make it harder for everybody to get them.
They should listen to some of the things National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, their biggest nemesis, has been saying.
Here’s what he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a week after a contractor — who had a security clearance despite clear signs of mental distress — shot and killed a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16: “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics.”
LaPierre said much the same thing after Adam Lanza killed his mother and then used her guns to slay 20 first-grade children and six adults in Newtown last year. His comments on mental health were brushed off, and he was ridiculed for saying schools would be safer with armed guards.
Yet he was making a valid point. Better diagnostic and treatment systems stand a chance of preventing a disturbed person from descending into violent lunacy. That is the only way Lanza might have been stopped, because he didn’t buy any guns. Still, better coordination between state health authorities and the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System could more effectively prevent criminals and mentally ill people from buying guns — at least from federally licensed firearms dealers — by ensuring that their names are on the background-check list.
In April, the NRA vigorously and successfully opposed attempts by Senate Democrats to pass legislation to ban sales of semi-automatic rifles like the one Lanza used in Newtown, as well as to close the “gun-show loophole” that exempts private gun sellers, who account for anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent of all sales, from the background-check requirement. When the Senate voted, no gun-control measures could get the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster, and the NRA crowed victory.
But again, listen to what LaPierre has been saying: “On the gun check, the NRA supported the gun check because we thought the mental records would be in the system; we thought criminals would be in the system. And we thought they would be prosecuted.”
There are hopeful signs that some people in Washington are beginning to take the issue of mental health care seriously. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and her co- sponsors, including a handful of Republicans, are pushing the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which would promote emergency 24-hour psychiatric services and other improvements. Replacing services that were largely dismantled decades ago will take years and cost billions.
LaPierre should be challenged to put at least some NRA lobbying clout, or money, where his mouth is on the issue of improvements in mental health care.
Craig R. Whitney, a former assistant managing editor and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of “Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.”