Yes, even lunatics apparently have the right to buy firearms in Tennessee. Almost 10 months after the massacre at Virginia Tech, where the young killer could buy guns even though he had been found mentally unsound, no action has been taken in Tennessee to prevent such a tragedy here.
As the Scene reported last May, Tennessee can’t be troubled to send the names of even the dangerously mentally ill to the FBI’s national instant background check system. Crazy as it may sound, even mentally ill people who have been involuntarily committed to institutions as a danger to themselves or others can go to a gun store on the day of their release, pass the background check and walk out with a firearm in Tennessee, just like that.
After the Virginia Tech shooting rampage, which prompted nationwide scrutiny of state gun laws, Gov. Phil Bredesen asked Attorney General Bob Cooper to review Tennessee’s procedures for reporting to the federal system. Cooper reported back that state law protects the confidentiality of mental health records—therefore, the names of dangerous lunatics cannot be reported to the FBI.
That’s the sum total of the progress made in Tennessee since the Virginia Tech killings to keep guns out of the hands of the deranged. Of the 119 pieces of legislation related to handguns filed in this two-year session of the Tennessee General Assembly, not one aims to change the mental-health confidentiality statute to allow for the reporting of records to the FBI.
When the Scene asked legislative leaders last year whether they planned to fix this obvious problem, they all pleaded ignorance, for them a completely believable claim. “Oh my goodness,” Senate Judiciary Committee chair Mae Beavers said then. “I didn’t know that.”
Now, lawmakers are choosing not to do anything. “I’m aware of the problem,” House Judiciary Committee chair William Kent Coleman says. “It’s an issue that I hope we can discuss and resolve this year.” But he didn’t introduce a bill before this session’s filing deadline and didn’t know that no one else did, either.
Lawmakers still could amend any of these bills related to handguns to allow for the FBI reporting, but will they? No action is likely without the permission of the state’s all-powerful gun lobby—the Tennessee Firearms Association, which is cool to the idea.
“I don’t know that reporting it to the FBI solves the problem because you can inherit a gun or you can buy it from an individual and there’s no background checks done at all,” association executive director John Harris says. “I don’t know frankly that it would have prevented the Virginia Tech massacre.”
The governor is thinking about doing something, but hasn’t yet. “If someone had a reasonable way and was willing to provide the funding to aggregate that data and if the data gave some reasonable protections to the privacy of the individuals…then I would think that would be a reasonable thing to do,” Bredesen told reporters recently. “I don’t know how to do it in the current system.”
Bredesen also says he’d probably sign legislation to let people take guns into bars if the legislature passes that bill.
Tennessee isn’t alone in claiming that confidentiality laws prevent full reporting to the FBI. At least 30 states make similar excuses. Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says the privacy issue is a red herring. “When gun dealers run a background check, they don’t get a sheet of paper that says, ‘Joe Schmo is mentally incompetent.’ They’re just told, ‘Don’t sell Joe Schmo a gun.’ They’re not given a reason. The privacy issues are workable.”
What happened at Virginia Tech caused Congress to pass a law that was supposed to strengthen buyer background checks, but didn’t. The law, signed by President Bush in January, doesn’t require states to report to the system, but merely offers as-yet-unspecified financial incentives for those that choose to do so. And before Congress could vote, the NRA hijacked the bill and added requirements that those states give back gun rights to one-time lunatics who can prove they aren’t crazy anymore—a procedure that could easily cost more than any federal funding that might eventually arrive.
What’s the solution? According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, it takes leadership from governors. With the public outraged that the Virginia Tech killer was able to buy guns, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine acted almost immediately to ensure that his state reports fully to the FBI. Do you think Bredesen might feel more urgency if someone shot up a Tennessee college campus? “What needs to happen here is the governors need to look at it and see where the clog is in the pipeline and unplug it,” says the coalition’s Ladd Everitt.
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