Keeping Guns from the Mentally Unstable: a New Idea

There are no fool-proof ways to prevent gun violence. But that does not mean there are no methods to make gun violence less likely to occur. It has been pointed out many times before that there are mentally ill, unstable people in all countries, but so much more gun violence in the United States. And the difference is the ease with which you can buy guns, including assault weapons, in nearly every city and tiny town, and even over the internet. The standard background check system is extremely limited. What if we used our knowledge of the psychology of mass killers to fine-tune the background check system specifically to screen out those most likely to use guns to commit mass murder?

Psychologists and psychiatrists have been telling us for decades that there are profiles that usually fit these killers. First on the list of character traits for mass murderers: they are anti-social. They are loners. Even if they don't show outward signs of potential violence, they are recognizable after the fact. It has become a cliché to interview their neighbors, who nearly always described the murderer as "quiet," and someone who "kept to himself." These people often have difficulty making eye contact. They often have trouble making small talk or engaging in normal conversation. Is there a way to make it harder for such people to legally buy firearms?

I propose that we require that anyone attempting to purchase a deadly weapon bring in four personal character references, signed and notarized by US citizens, attesting to the character of the future gun-owner. Such a character reference would state that the person who wants to buy these deadly weapons has a non-criminal use for them that makes sense to the persons writing these references, such as personal protection, hunting, or sport shooting. Those writing these references would be attesting to the fact that they know this individual personally, that the person who wants to own these deadly weapons is not likely to use them for criminal purposes. And the person signing such a personal reference would be aware that, should that person use any of these weapons to commit a crime, that the person who signed their reference affidavit would be liable under the law as an accessory to the crime.

Fast food restaurants require personal references before they hire a kid to make change at a register; why not require personal character references before the state allows an individual to purchase or carry a deadly weapon?

How could the NRA object to this? I'm sure they'd find a way, because all they care about is the profits of gun manufacturers. People who own gun shops might welcome such a system, as they don't want it on their conscience that they were the ones who sold weapons to a mentally unstable individual who used weapons bought at their store to kill people. And making sure these affidavits are notarized would prevent people from writing in fictitious names, or having the same person sign with four different names, or other such attempts at fraud.

The biggest weakness of this system of character witnesses is that it is not one hundred percent fool proof. A real criminal mastermind could spend many hours gaming the system, and maybe figure a way to fake these. But that is the same weakness that all restrictions share, and is not a good reason not to try such a system. A requirement for personal references is much less cumbersome then having potential gun owners get a clean bill of mental health from a professional, the way licensed pilots need a clean bill of health from a physician to keep a pilot's license. All it requires is that the person who wants to purchase and carry a deadly weapon get four character witnesses willing to sign a legally binding affidavit.

That should be easy for law-abiding, mentally stable folks, but very difficult for the anti-social loner. There is no constitutional right for anti-social loners to own guns. And the state is not making a judgment as to a potential gun owner's mental fitness to own a weapon; that responsibility is left to the individuals who are asked to write these personal references. Small price to pay, to impinge on the liberty of the mentally unstable, to make it more likely that the rest of us can go to a church, a movie theater, a kindergarten classroom, and yes, even a gay bar, and be safe from a killer who can mow down fifty people in a few minutes time.