Jacob Sullum
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The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says Sunday's deadly attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb, shows "our elected officials" need to "do something." Slightly more specifically, the group says we should "Demand Congress Stop Arming Dangerous People."

I did not realize there was a federal program that supplies mass murderers with weapons. Obviously, this is a poor use of our tax dollars. Congress should not only eliminate this program but it should also prevent dangerous people from buying guns on their own.

But how do we know who is dangerous? The Brady Campaign mentions "convicted felons," "convicted domestic abusers," "terrorists" and "people found to be dangerously mentally ill." It omits a crucial category: people with dangerous ideas.

Wade M. Page, the Army veteran identified as the gunman who was shot to death by police after killing six people and injuring three at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, had documented ties to white supremacist groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks extremists, he was "a frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band" called End Apathy.

"The music that comes from these bands is incredibly violent," Mark Potok, a senior fellow of the SPLC, told The New York Times. "It talks about murdering Jews, black people, gay people and a whole host of other enemies."

According to the SITE Monitoring Service, Page was a familiar presence on websites run by Stormfront, Hammerskin Nation and other white supremacist groups, where he "frequently included white supremacist symbolism" in his posts. In a 2010 interview with End Apathy's record company, Page said he aimed to cure "a sick society" and bemoaned "how the value of human life has been degraded by being submissive to tyranny and hypocrisy."

In other words, Page's scary views were well-known long before he bought the 9mm handgun he used in this week's attack. Yet he was still able to pass a federal background check.

Federal law currently bans gun ownership by felons, illegal drug users, people convicted of misdemeanors involving domestic violence and people "committed to a mental institution" or "adjudicated as a mental defective." Amazingly, there is no ideological test for gun ownership, even though someone like Page, "who fed and was fueled by hate" (as the Times put it), is far more dangerous than the average pot smoker or mental patient.

Private organizations such as the SPLC and government agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security already monitor the online activities of violent extremists. How hard would it be to collect that information in a database that could be used to check whether a would-be gun buyer harbors views that make him prone to murder?

Once the database is created, it can be regularly updated with the names of people who express views like Page's -- who talk about tyranny, hypocrisy, or a "sick society," for instance, or who quote inflammatory proclamations like this one, frequently seen on the T-shirts and signs of right-wing lunatics: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants." I don't mean to imply that violent extremism is limited to the right; when you consider the ideas expressed by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, it is clear that left-wing critiques of capitalism also lead to murderous violence.

I am not saying people do not have a right to express these alarming views -- just that if they do, they should not be surprised if they are turned away when they try to buy a gun. The Brady Campaign correctly says "it is time we acknowledged" that the Second Amendment "guarantees the right to keep and bear arms." But the Supreme Court has said that right is subject to reasonable regulations aimed at protecting public safety. What could be more reasonable than stopping dangerous people from buying dangerous weapons?

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Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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