Mental Health Screenings and the Effect on Gun Violence

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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Historically speaking, guns were used for hunting and for protection. In the late 1700’s, the Revolutionary War began from Britain’s pursuit to take away the colonists weaponry and oppress them. Lexington and Concord was the beginning of the fight for freedom. When Britain surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, the colonists had won their independence. The first constitution called the Articles of Confederation was ratified by all thirteen colonies in 1781 and was in place until 1789 when the U.S Constitution was ratified by nine states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire).

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The following four states (Rhode Island, North Carolina, New York, and Virginia) were not going to ratify the U.S Constitution without the Bill of Rights because they did not want the federal government to become tyrannical. This resulted in the Bill of Rights being added in 1791. The second amendment in the Constitution states A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed (Strasser, M. R). The amendment was added to the Bill of Rights to give U.S citizens the right to check the federal government if it became dictatorial.

The concern of gun violence has become a recurring issue in American society. Due to almost 62 percent of deaths from a firearm stemming from suicide and almost 35 percent from homicide , the question has been raised whether laws on firearm possession need to be stricter or if guns should be prohibited altogether (Gun Violence in America). This has led to the controversy of whether taking action against guns would infringe on the constitutional right to have them. The National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS) has a system in which mental health and criminal behavior is regulated to prevent unfit individuals from possessing a gun. The recurring problem has become whether reports are officially made against those individuals who are deemed unfit to the system. Many individuals have been shown to slip the system. Mental health screenings done by a professional prior to the purchase of a firearm could reduce the incidents of gun violence in the United States. For the purposes of this paper, mental health is defined as A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community (Mental health: A state of well-being). Gun violence is to be defined as a malicious act against oneself or an innocent being with a firearm.

The laws enacted by the federal government on gun control started in 1791 with the Bill of Rights and continued until 2010. There has been no federal action to control gun violence since. The beginning of laws on firearms began with the second amendment in the Bill of Rights. As discussed, the second amendment states, A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed (Strasser, M. R). The amendment was included in the Bill of Rights in order to protect civilians from the legal authority of the federal government. If the federal government became too powerful, civilians had a means to protect themselves. In 1934, the National Firearms act was passed. The law imposed a tax on the manufacturing of different firearms such as machine guns and certain rifles in order to secure access away from civilians to possess a gun that caused more damage. The law also required those selling firearms to have a federal license to do so. Lastly, the law prevented those who had a criminal record to possess a firearm.

The next law that was put in place was the Gun Control Act in 1968. The Gun Control Act was in direct result from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. The law implicated five major conditions. The first implication expanded the disqualifications of an individual to purchase a firearm. It added that those deemed mentally ill, or illegal drug users were considered unfit to purchase a firearm. The second implication stopped importation of guns not used for sport into the United States. The third implication broadened the licensing and record keeping requirements gun dealers had to abide by for the sale of a firearm. The fourth implication required serial numbers to be put on manufactured or imported guns. The last implication prohibited the sales of guns across state lines except by gun manufacturers, dealers, or importers. It also raised the age requirement for the purchase of handguns from 18 to 21.

In 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act became law. It allowed licensed firearm dealers to sell firearms at a gun show limited to their state only. It also loosened the regulations on the sale and transfer of ammunition. In 1994, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act or the Brady Act was passed. The Brady Act mandated a five day waiting period on the purchase of a firearm in which sellers are to conduct a background check on the gun buyer. The law is not applied to those who have a federal firearms license or a state-issued permit to possess them. Also, in 1994 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed. The law included the assault weapons ban which made the the manufacturing and sale of semi-automatic weapons with magazines that held ten or more rounds of ammunition illegal for ten years.

In 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS) was launched and required gun dealers to review the database headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) before selling a gun to a customer. In 2004, the ban on assault weapons expired with no renewal date. Assault weapons were then allowed to be manufactured and sold to citizens with no prohibition. In 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act was signed which prohibited manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of firearms or ammunition to be charged with any legal action if an individual misused their products in any unlawful way. In 2008, The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Amendments Act (NICS Improvement Act) was passed. It provided financial incentive for states to release information about people unfit to purchase a firearm to the database. States that released information about mentally ill individuals or those in psychiatric institutions, were to be reported to the database in return for financial benefit. It was setup to amend loopholes in the system, which would filter out more and more people who were unfit to purchase a weapon. The last law made federally to combat gun violence was in 2010, which simply allowed individuals who had a license to carry a gun to bring the gun into the national park only in states that had open carry laws in place. Since 2010, there have been no laws passed by the federal government regarding gun control. This has been a nation wide concern, as gun violence has become an ever increasing issue in our society.

Since 1934, the federal government has made laws to protect the country from gun violence, but as society has illustrated, the issue of homicides and suicides have been an increasing problem. The question becomes that if the laws are there, why has gun violence become an ever increasing problem? The answer lies in where the laws have gaps that individuals have taken advantage of. One of the major inconsistencies in the federal government is how mental health is reported to the National Instant Criminal Background System. The system was created in 1998 and was revised in 2008, but the system has lacked numerous reports of individuals displaying serious mental illness and even those with a criminal background. Federal law cannot require states to make information identifying these people available to the federal or state agencies that perform background checks, and many states fail to voluntarily report the necessary records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) (Mental Health Reporting). What this means is that even under the NICS Improvement Act, many mentally ill individuals and criminals have passed a background check to purchase a firearm regardless of their history.

The gap in reports to the system is widely associated in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when a Virginia Tech student, named Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people on campus and injured 17 others with a gun he legally purchased. The regulations in Virginia failed to require that all reports of underlying mental health to be reported, therefore resulting in a hole in the system. The gap caused 32 innocent lives to be lossed regardless of the psychiatric counseling, and treatment Seung-Hui Cho received for depression and selective mutism.

Another important case in which an individual slipped the system was the Texas First Baptist Church Massacre in 2017. Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26 year old ex U.S Air Force Airman opened fire during a Sunday service killing 26 individuals and injuring 20. Kelley obtained his guns legally, but had a historical background of domestic violence against his wife and son. He was court martialed by the U.S Air Force due to two charges of assault and discharged from service due to bad conduct. The charges failed to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Database which resulted in many lives lost.

Other important shootings such as the Sandy Hook Shooting and the Santa Fe High School shooting are both cases of mentally ill individuals who stole weapons from their parents supply of firearms. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17 year old, killed ten individuals and wounded thirteen others at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. He stole a Remington 810 shotgun and a .38 caliber revolver that his father legally owned. Authorities found a journal of Dimitrios’ that included plans to take his life after the shooting. It was very clear he suffered from mental illness. In the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Adam Lanza, a 20 year old, shot his mother before stealing two semi-automatic handguns, one assault rifle and, one assault shotgun all legally owned by his mother. Adam killed 27 individuals at the school and injured two. He had a history of mental illness which is family was aware of. The point that is being made is that these cases all could have been prevented if proper reports were made to the NICS system. Due to the failed reports to the database, those who were deemed as mentally unfit were not in the system, which resulted in many casualties that could have been prevented. If every individual was required federally to have a psychiatric evaluation in the form of a mental health screening, prior the the purchase of a weapon, those with serious mental illness or with a criminal violence background could be caught, regardless of how the state specifically reports to the NICS database.

Although it is proven that the NICS database has flaws, there is one other way that individuals can bypass the system. The flaw is connected to the Gun Control Act of 1968. As reviewed, the law broadened the licensing and record keeping requirements that gun dealers had to abide by for the sale of a firearm. The flaw in the system points to private vendors at gun shows who do not have a federal license. Unlicensed gun vendors who do not make a living off of selling firearms are not required to perform the background check that federal licensed gun venders are required to perform. This is commonly referred as the gun show loophole. It simply means that a criminal or someone who is mentally ill could acquire a firearm at a gun show, due to no history of a background check being completed. Currently only six states require universal background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows including sales done by unlicensed dealers (Gun Show Loophole FAQ). These states are California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island. Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania are the only three states that require background checks for licensed and unlicensed gun sellers, but only are required for the purchase of handguns at a gun show, not for other kinds of guns.

The gun show loophole is most widely connected to the very famous Columbine shooting in 1999. Eric Harris, who was 18, was diagnosed by a group of psychiatrists after the tragedy as a psychopath, and Dylan Klebold, who was 17, had suicidal tendencies. The two individuals together planned the shooting for over a year and acquired their weapons at a Tanner Gun Show in Denver, Colorado from a private vendor. The two individuals together killed 13 individuals and injured 24. Background checks would not have necessarily caught the individuals because of no official criminal or mental health history, but a mental health screening would have brought light to the mental instability the two individuals faced. On November 7, 2000, the citizens of Colorado overwhelmingly voted 70%, 30% in favor of Amendment 22, closing the gun show loophole in their state (Gun Show Loophole FAQ).

Due to the direct result of gun violence, there is a rise in public concern of what the next step should be to combat the problem. The United States Constitution, specifically the second amendment in the Bill of Rights, has been the main focus to which gun regulation laws has been blocked. There are many controversial solutions to control the growing issue of gun violence, but undeniably something needs to be changed. There are people who articulate the need for revising current federal laws to fix underlying issues and gaps. There have been many protests to support this point of view. The other point of view argues that the constitutional right to possess a firearm is written in stone and that any law that begins to regulate the possession of a firearm would be hindering that constitutional right. The question remains of what is, or is not defined as constitutional. Historically, the regulation of firearm possession has occurred since the early 1900’s to control safety. The first law in 1934 that hindered criminals from possessing a firearm was enacted for the sole purpose to eliminate the potential of someone who has shown behaviors of doing harm to use a lethal weapon maliciously. As history has proven itself, criminals and those who are mentally ill have proven the incapability of using a firearm respectively for the correct purpose. In order to provide a safer environment for the majority, firearms have to regulated. By expanding background checks to include a psychiatric evaluation in a mental health screening prior to the purchase of a firearm has potential in limiting those who are mentally ill or who have a criminal background to be absent from the NICS database. If the federal government mandated psychiatric mental screenings on gun control, those who are proven mentally ill or have criminal tendencies could be better identified. An additional option to add to mental health screenings, would be to require references when purchasing a firearm with the ability to have face to face interviews with the references.

In conclusion, the second amendment is a justifiable amendment. It is there to protect individuals from the federal government. The Bill of Rights still holds a purpose, regardless of societal factors. Those who are mentally ill and criminals have proven their incapability to use a firearm safely and for the correct use; therefore there is a system in place for the safety of the majority. Even though the system needs revision, there is a system to attempt to prevent those who have proven to do harm to other individuals and to continue harm with the ability to purchase a firearm. Federal legislation that required an individual to have a mental health screening prior to the purchase of a firearm would confirm those who have mental illnesses, and would prevent unreported cases in the NICS database about those unfit to purchase a firearm. If offenders such as Seung-Hui Cho, Devin Patrick Kelley, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold all had had a mental health screening prior to the purchase of the weapons they used to kill, there is the potentiality that their name would have been in the NICS database and that they would not have had the means to do the shooting. The federal system can be repaired and edited, but the hearts of those who want to inflict death on society cannot be managed by the government without denying constitutional rights to everyone else. Cases such as Adam Lanza and Dimitrios Pagourtzis illustrate mindsets of those who want to kill and whether there are government regulations or not some will find a way regardless of the law. The government cannot stop every case, but there are laws that can be revised and added to improve gun violence from occurring.

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Mental Health Screenings and the Effect on Gun Violence. (2019, Sep 14). Retrieved from