A Way Forward on Preventing Gun Violence

In his post-Newtown press conference, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre directed the blame for recent mass shootings at a society content to allow felons and the mentally ill access to guns. He bemoaned the lack of a "national database of the mentally ill" while decrying a 40 percent decrease in federal gun prosecutions of thugs and criminals. LaPierre identified the key to solving gun violence as getting guns away from, as he put it, "genuine monsters -- people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them."

Mr. LaPierre is absolutely correct that these types of people should not be afforded the capacity to hurt themselves or others. The good news is that we as a nation are getting better at identifying the dangerously mentally ill and revoking their gun rights. The bad news is that when it comes to actually taking their guns from them, we collectively shrug our shoulders and move on to other challenges that require less time and energy.

The fact is that the initial sale of a gun is almost always legal. It's at the point where the owner faces criminal charges or mental challenges that the issue of legality gets muddled. Perhaps the legal gun owner develops a mental illness. He or she could be convicted of a felony -- or become the subject of an order of protection as a result of stalking or issuing threats of violence. In my home state of Illinois -- and many others -- all of these represent grounds for losing one's right to own a gun, as well they should.

Here in Cook County -- which includes Chicago and its suburbs and has a total population of over 5 million -- roughly 4,000 people have had their gun privileges revoked by the state yet have failed to turn in their guns, ammunition and firearm owner's identification card. Some of these people are seriously mentally ill; most live within close proximity to schools, parks and other public places.

As Cook County Sheriff, I felt a responsibility to take action now, rather than waiting for the next mass shooting. In February, I assigned a dedicated police unit within my office to seize weapons from those individuals whose gun privileges had been revoked by the state. In just six months, this small team has singlehandedly collected more than 200 guns from criminals and the mentally ill who should be nowhere near these weapons.

The stories are startling. One man, whose gun privileges were revoked due to his serious mental illness, possessed an arsenal of 35 guns -- including four assault weapons. Another man, the subject of an order of protection from his neighbor, openly fantasized to my officers about shooting both the neighbor and her dog and proceeding to bury them in his backyard.

These are not isolated examples. These people exist everywhere, and they remain armed and dangerous to their communities. Yet, besides Cook County, only California maintains a program tasked with taking their guns away. Most states take proactive measures to revoke gun privileges when warranted but make no effort whatsoever to actually get the weapons away from people who pose dangers to themselves and their communities. Out of sight, out of mind.
Why the lack of interest from law enforcement in removing those weapons? For some, it's a question of insufficient personnel and budgets. For others, it's simple ignorance of the law and what they as policing authorities can do to prevent tragedies.

In no way does this strategy affect law-abiding gun owners -- solely the criminals and mentally ill who cannot legally own weapons yet fail or refuse to turn them in. It does not require legislation, lobbying or approval from elected officials. All it requires is the determination of sheriffs and police chiefs who take seriously their responsibilities to protect their respective communities from gun violence.

Mentally unstable people should not have guns. Nor should criminals. Ensuring that they never obtain access to weapons in the first place is nice in concept. But when it fails in practice, law enforcement should take advantage of mechanisms to right those wrongs and get guns out of dangerous hands.