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Sheriffs’ mental health checks could save lives

Maybe N.C. lawmakers have forgotten Aurora, Colo., or Gabby Giffords or Virginia Tech. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so nonchalant about pushing through a bill that removes a safeguard against mentally unstable people getting access to guns.

Here’s a reminder for them as they consider House Bill 310.

• On July 20, 2012, James Holmes mowed down 12 people and injured 58 more in shootings at an Aurora movie theater. Newly released documents show he exhibited homicidal tendencies 38 days before the attack, and his psychiatrist reported it to police. Around the same time, Holmes began amassing semiautomatic weapons and large quantities of ammunition.

• On Jan 8, 2011, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was one of 13 people injured and six killed in Tucson, Ariz., at a supermarket. The shooter, Jared Loughner, was known to be mentally unstable so much so that he was barred from a college campus.

• On April 16, 2007, in the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 others on the campus. A Virginia judge had found him mentally ill in 2005.

These tragedies are a warning against a bill barring sheriffs from requesting additional mental health records that might illuminate the fitness of those seeking a concealed carry permit. The bill removes a safeguard that judges say they rely on to determine how safe it is to grant a permit.

The bill says permits must be allowed unless mental infirmity prevents it, as determined by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

But there’s little comfort in using NICS.

Since it was created in 1999, that system has blocked more than 1.9 million permit applications and gun sales to felons, people with seriously mental health problems and other dangerous people.

But experts say as many as 1.5 million people ruled mentally unfit to own a gun don’t appear on the NICS database. States haven’t been diligent in making federal authorities aware of them.

That’s what happened in the Virginia Tech shooting. Although a judge had found the shooter mentally ill in 2005, that record wasn’t submitted to NICS, enabling Cho to pass background checks to purchase the handguns he used.

President George W. Bush signed a law in 2008 to tighten reporting to the NICS database, but the reporting is still too lax.

Even the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre admitted as much last year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 children and six adults. Said LaPierre: “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics.... Twenty-three states are still putting only a small number of records into the system, and a lot of states are putting none.”

The NRA has conveniently forgotten that stand as it expresses support for this N.C. legislation.

Current law rightly allows appeals when the sheriff denies a permit request. That falls to the District Court. In Mecklenburg County, Chief Judge Lisa Bell, has reversed the sheriff’s ruling against issuing a permit in a number of cases.

This bill has the feel of “model” legislation pushed by the conservative leaning American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been touting looser firearms laws under the guise of “consistency in firearms regulation.” Sponsors said this bill aimed to ensure “statewide uniformity relating to firearms” because not every sheriff requests mental health records.

But that’s no reason to remove a safeguard that Mecklenburg and others use, and for which law enforcers and judges see a benefit. If it protects us against another Virginia Tech shooter, this additional check will be worth it.

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