Why Jared Loughner was allowed to buy a gun

Despite evidence that Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner is mentally unstable, he was never declared mentally unfit by a court, so his name did not appear in the federal background-check database used by gun sellers.

Charlie Riedel/AP
United States District Attorney Patrick Cunningham talks to the press following the initial court appearance of Jared Loughner at the Sandra Day O'Connor United States Courthouse in Phoenix, Ariz., Monday. Loughner appeared in federal court on charges he tried to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a shooting rampage that left six people dead.
Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star/AP
Jared Lee Loughner.

Evidence is mounting that Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner was mentally unstable – and yet he was still allowed to purchase a gun legally.

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the possession of firearms by the mentally ill. So why was Mr. Loughner able to guy a gun?

The ability to own a firearm is a constitutionally protected right, and depriving someone of that right involves a legal process. Under the 1968 law, a person must be declared mentally unfit by a court or have been committed to a mental institution to lose his or her right to possess firearms.

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In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act required the establishment of a national database known as the National Instant Background Check System (NICS), where the names of people ineligible to possess firearms are to be entered.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, such information is provided to the NICS Index by local, state, tribal, and federal agencies.

Loughner's background check

A store selling firearms is required to check with NICS before making a sale. In Mr. Loughner’s case, when the 22-year-old went to the Sportsman’s Warehouse outlet in Tucson, Ariz., on Nov. 30 to purchase a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun, a background check was performed and he came up clear, according to the store manager. That Glock was used in Saturday’s rampage in Tucson that killed six people and injured 13 others, including the critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona.

Arizona, well known for its low barriers to gun possession, also prohibits the possession of firearms by anyone found to “constitute a danger to himself or others” and whose right to possess a firearm has not been restored under the requirements laid out by state law.

The best-known evidence of Loughner’s mental issues comes from Pima Community College, where he was suspended last year apparently because of mental problems. The college informed him that he could return only if he obtained “a mental health clearance indicating that, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the college does not present a danger to himself or others.”

There is no known record that a court had ever declared Loughner mentally unfit or that he had ever been committed to a mental institution.

Changes since Virginia Tech

But even if that had been the case, there’s no guarantee that Loughner’s name would have appeared in the national database. Some states have been slow to report names that belong in the “do not sell” list, even after Congress passed a law in 2007 aimed at punishing states with inadequate compliance records and providing incentives to states with good reporting records.

The law passed after the Virginia Tech shooting that year, in which a mentally ill student killed 32 people. In 2005, a judge had declared the shooter, Seung Hui Cho, a danger to himself and ordered him into psychiatric care. But Mr. Cho was still able to purchase two semiautomatic handguns, because his name did not appear in the NICS database.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported last Friday, the day before the Tucson shootings, that between Jan. 1, 2008, and Aug. 31, 2010, the number of disqualifying mental illness records submitted to NICS by states and territories had more than doubled – from 402,047 records to 929,254. Adding federal records brings the total to nearly 1.1 million.

But the Brady campaign argues that “millions of relevant records” are still missing from the system. The National Center for State Courts and SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, estimate that the NICS Index should contain more than 2 million disqualifying mental illness records, according to the Brady campaign.

In the wake of the Arizona tragedy, advocates of gun rights maintain that additional gun control is not the answer to preventing future violence.

"We have state and federal laws on the books that already prohibit persons who have been deemed mentally insane from owning and possessing firearms," Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I don't think we're going to legislate our way out of the risk associated with people who are insane or people who are bent on performing evil acts to kill another person."

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