SC closes critical gap in background checks

info@islandpacket.comMay 13, 2013 

South Carolina has a new law that should help prevent guns from being sold to people with serious mental health problems.

The law requires state courts and the State Law Enforcement Division to report people who have been deemed mentally ill by the courts to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used for background checks of those seeking to purchase handguns.

That determination has to be made in a court and after the person is offered due process under the law. The state Senate tightened the bill's language after the House passed it.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who helped write the Senate revision, said the changes were made to prevent a "loose interpretation of the bill and restrictions on a fundamental right."

The law is overdue. State and federal law already make it illegal in many cases for the mentally impaired to buy guns, but South Carolina had no rules requiring such cases be entered into the federal database.

That means critical information was missing when a firearms dealer conducted a background check on someone seeking to buy guns.

But there's more work to do at the federal level. The new state law doesn't apply to federal courts, and had it been in place, it's unlikely it would have affected Alice Boland's ability to buy a gun.

The Lady's Island woman was arrested Feb. 4 at a downtown Charleston school and later charged with attempted murder and other gun-related violations.

Boland, who according to court documents had a history of mental illness, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in 2009 on federal charges that she threatened to kill then-President George W. Bush and members of Congress. The charges were dropped after that.

None of that history appeared in a background check by the Walterboro gun shop that sold Boland a Taurus PT-22 days before the incident at the Charleston school.

She faces federal charges that she lied on a federal form that all potential purchasers must complete before buying a gun from a store.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is pushing for a change to federal law that would require information from federal courts to be put into the background check system.

It would include people who plead not guilty by reason of insanity; are found not guilty by reason of insanity or mental disease or defect; are found to be an imminent danger to themselves or others, as well as those involuntarily committed to treatment by a psychiatric hospital; or are found to be incompetent to stand trial in a criminal case.

It does not include those who seek voluntary treatment for mental illness and those in mental institutions for observation. It also requires a process for reinstatement of gun-ownership rights at the state and federal levels after someone is released from treatment.

Critics worry the latter provision could weaken current law. People released from treatment would not have to make their case in court to get their names removed from the federal database, but underlying mental health issues might not be resolved.

Congress should be careful not to weaken existing law. Still, there's a lot to be said for Graham's proposal. Unfortunately, it was attached to a broader gun control bill that was stopped in the Senate.

Graham's spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said Graham would look for other chances to introduce the measure.

We hope Graham is persistent and successful in that effort.

No one law is a panacea for gun violence, but the new state law and Graham's proposal increase the chances of keeping guns out of the hands of people with serious mental problems.

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