State Gun Control Measures Badly Missing the Mark

Bob Barr

4/17/2013 10:15:00 AM - Bob Barr

Despite two decisions, in 2008 and 2010, by the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally affirming that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms against infringement by the government, state legislatures continue to do just that – enact laws that significantly infringe this fundamental human right. This effort has accelerated since the Sandy Hook school shooting by a crazed gunman last December. Not surprisingly, New York led the way.

Within a month following the tragic mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the New York legislature passed the “Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013.” The SAFE Act was hailed as one of the “toughest” gun control laws in the nation by the Empire State’s left-wing Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The legislation’s provisions require forced registration of so-called “assault weapons” and recertification (that is, “government approval”) at least every five years for eligibility to legally own any firearm. The new law also places new obligations on mental health providers to report to government officials those gun-owning citizens who present a vague “threat” to society.

Critics of the SAFE Act were not limited to firearms owners. New mental health provisions in the bill frightened healthcare professionals, who see serious implications for not only patients’ rights, but also deterring treatment. “I think there's a very realistic probability that patients will simply avoid seeking treatment,” Dr. Paul Applebaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, told CBS News about the SAFE Act. “Or, if they come to treatment will sit there without disclosing what's truly on their mind for fear that if they do the state will know about it and consequences will follow.”

As should be expected with legislation hastily crafted on the coattails of a national tragedy, the SAFE Act largely provides the illusion of safety, but at the expense of individual liberties. Moreover, the effect of such shoddy legislation is already being seen, turning law-abiding citizens into victims of political negligence.

Last week, for example, Fox News reported a story about Buffalo-area resident, David Lewis, who received a letter from the Erie County clerk notifying him that his pistol license was suspended, and that he could have it revoked should he not obey the suspension. According to his attorney, Lewis was actually the victim of mistaken identity. The State relied on bad information in concluding Lewis was taking psychotropic prescription drugs for an illness that made him a “danger to the community.”

It is likely that Lewis is not even the first victim of such a mistake resulting from bureaucratic carelessness, and he will assuredly not be the last. “When the State Police called to tell us they made a mistake and had the wrong person…it became clear that the State did not do their job here, and now we all look foolish,” Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs said in a statement released following the revelation that Lewis was an innocent victim. “Until the mental health provisions [in the SAFE Act] are fixed, these mistakes will continue to happen.”

One crucial fact lost in the emotional debate over mass gun violence is the fact that as tragic as these incidents are, mass shootings are statistically rare; and using such incidents as the foundation for limiting a fundamental individual liberty is never sound policy. Lost on state legislators like those in New York (and now, also in Colorado and Connecticut) is the principle that basic, constitutionally-guaranteed rights enjoyed by all law-abiding citizens, are never to be sacrificed as the price to pay for catching those few individuals who either abuse such rights or are in fact crazy, like the gunman at Sandy Hook. Yet, state legislators push on doing precisely that.

In their zeal to “do something” in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, legislators also appear to be stereotyping people who suffer from anxiety or other personality disorders, as all being potential powder kegs for violence. This has become an issue in the analysis of the Newtown incident, after it was revealed the shooter suffered from autism. “Not only was [Autism Spectrum Disorder] suggested as the reasoning behind this planned attack, it was singled out in national and local headlines,” the National Autism Association said in a statement released days after the shooting. “As advocates, we now face the additional fear that children and adults with Autism may become collateral damage of irresponsible media coverage.”

As we now see with the SAFE Act, this vulnerable class may become collateral damage of irresponsible legislation.

As I’ve written before, there is little doubt that mental health is a major risk factor in mass shooting tragedies. Unfortunately, it is a factor that goes largely unaddressed in favor of tackling easier red herrings, such as “gun control,” which not only furthers the anti-gun agenda favored by the Administration of Barack Obama and most Democrats in the Congress, but also looks good in the eyes of liberal constituents (and donors) come election years.

However, confronting the role of mental health in mass shootings requires reason, finesse, and a high threshold for respecting both Second Amendment and patient privacy rights. This is where the focus ought to be, from both a constitutional perspective and from the standpoint of getting something done that will actually help prevent future Adam Lanzas. Unfortunately, many state legislators seem blithely ignorant or uncaring about this reality.