Expanding Background Checks Necessary, But Not Enough

Gun violence prevention efforts got off to a great start in 2014 when the Obama administration announced two new executive actions on January 3 that will help keep firearms out of the hands of people at an elevated risk of being a danger to themselves and/or others.

The first executive action helps to clarify that the federal firearm prohibition based on the statutory term "committed to a mental institution," which has always been interpreted to include involuntary inpatient commitments, will now also include involuntary outpatient commitments. The outpatient commitment loophole first came to the nation's attention in 2007, when Virginia Tech gunman Seung Hui-Cho walked through it to legally buy the handguns used in that massacre despite having been committed by a court to an outpatient facility.

The second action clarifies that nothing in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) would prevent states from notifying the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) when a person becomes prohibited from purchasing a firearm based on a court-ordered commitment or other federally disqualifying adjudication. Privacy concerns have been cited repeatedly by the states as a reason they do not forward these adjudications, despite the fact that they contain no actual mental health information. This action will help ensure that the database is more complete moving forward.

Much of the debate since the Newtown tragedy has focused on expanding background checks to cover private transactions of firearms, such as those that occur at gun shows or over the Internet. This is a worthy and necessary goal. Universal background checks are the lynchpin of any successful system designed to prohibit dangerous individuals from accessing firearms.

However, the administration touched on an equally important goal with its recent actions: strengthening background checks. In the wake of a series of gruesome mass shootings perpetrated by individuals who legally purchased their murder weapons it is becoming abundantly obvious that merely expanding background checks is not enough. We must strengthen the system itself so that individuals with a history of dangerous behavior can no longer clear its low bar.

One such individual was Aaron Alexis, who legally purchased a shotgun in Virginia and on September 16, 2013 fatally shot 12 people while injuring 3 others at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Alexis had a documented history of mental illness and recklessness with firearms, which included arrests in the states of Texas and Washington. And he's not alone. How many other mass shooters have we now seen legally purchase firearm despite numerous red flags in their background? Seung Hui-Cho, Stephen Kazmierczak, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page... the list goes on and on.

Then there is the daily toll of gun violence we rarely hear about -- more than 80 Americans shot dead on a daily basis in gun homicides, suicides and accidents. How many of these lives could be saved if we thoroughly and adequately screened gun buyers for evidence of dangerousness?

If federal and state laws continue to define individuals like George Zimmerman and Aaron Alexis as "good guys with guns," we know exactly what type of result we are going to get. More bloodshed. More families and communities destroyed by gun violence.

Thankfully, it doesn't have to be this way. Decades of research have identified various behaviors that indicate an elevated risk of violence. Federal law already prohibits some of these individuals from owning and purchasing firearms: convicted felons, fugitives from justice, those under a permanent restraining order, individuals who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric care etc. But there are other issues that give rise to an elevated risk of violence that we continue to ignore. Consider the evidence:

• Past violent behavior is a strong predictor of future violence regardless of a diagnosis of mental illness. Individuals convicted of crimes of violence -- including misdemeanors -- are at increased risk of committing future violent crimes.

• Some individuals with serious mental illness, especially those with substance or alcohol abuse disorders and those who have been involuntarily committed for treatment, pose a heightened risk to others when they are experiencing acute exacerbations of their illness.

• Alcohol abuse and illegal use of controlled substances increase the risk of violence toward self and others.

• Most victims of intimate partner homicide are killed with a gun and evidence has shown that there is as much as a five-fold increased risk of intimate partner homicide when an abuser has a firearm. Yet not all domestic violence restraining orders are prohibitory.

Lawmakers at the federal and state level should be taking advantage of this data to improve the existing background check system. My organization, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, recently worked with the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy--a group of mental health and public health experts--to develop a series of recommendations for federal and state legislators based on this evidence.

As the Consortium points out, legislative initiatives should not scapegoat Americans dealing with mental health issues, the overwhelming majority of whom will never become violent in their lifetimes. By focusing on people with elevated risk across the spectrum instead of a diagnosis of mental illness, we can strike a balance between a commitment to public safety and respect for the privacy of persons dealing with serious mental illness.

Specifically what should we do to prevent those at elevated risk of violence from purchasing and possessing firearms? Here are the recommendations from the Consortium:

• The federal government should clarify that any court-ordered involuntary commitment, including outpatient commitment, should be prohibitory. Thanks to the Obama administration, this item can now be checked off.

• State laws should be strengthened to temporarily prohibit individuals from purchasing or possessing firearms after a short-term involuntary hospitalization.

• The process for restoring firearm rights should be modified to better protect the public while being fair to individuals who seek to regain their rights.

• Congress and state legislatures should enact new restrictions on purchase and possession of firearms by individuals found guilty by a court of having engaged in specific criminal offenses shown to be significant risk factors for future violence and by individuals subject to any domestic violence restraining order.

• The current civil restraining order process should be expanded to allow law enforcement and family members to petition a court to authorize seizure of firearms and issue a temporary prohibition on the purchase and possession of firearms based on a specific, substantiated threat of physical harm to self or others.

As Fareed Zakaria recently wrote, "the greatest tragedy" when it comes to gun violence in the United States is that "we know how to [prevent] it," but fail to act. Let us all resolve to make 2014 the year we finally do it.