N.C. should close Va. Tech loophole

Think about this: Someone judged by a court in North Carolina to be a danger due to mental illness could walk out of a gun shop with a firearm, a violation of the law.

Why? Because North Carolina has a double-barreled hole in its gun laws. Courts are not required to notify the National Instant Criminal Background Check system when someone is involuntarily committed.

That loophole needs to close – now. A bill OK'd by a state Senate committee would do so. Lawmakers should approve it promptly.

This doesn't make sense. It's against federal law for those convicted of felonies and those with dangerous mental illnesses to purchase or own handguns. Yet the federally required background check of a would-be gun buyer would turn up no record in North Carolina of court-ordered commitment. That's because the state's courts don't report that information to the FBI-run National database used by law enforcement and gun dealers.

The killing spree at Virginia Tech in 2007 showed how important information about court rulings is. Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people before killing himself, had been ordered by the court to undergo involuntary outpatient treatment. But he was not listed on the NICBCS. Virginia requires that step now, but didn't at that time, and a gun dealer who sold him handguns days before the killing had no way of knowing.

Why the secrecy in N.C.? Privacy provisions in state mental health statutes keep the records under wraps. Mental health advocates argue an exemption would treat mental illness differently from other medical conditions and disclose potentially damaging information. Gun rights supporters argue it would open the door to stricter controls.

Yet several exemptions already exist in N.C. law, including a requirement that courts report commitments for substance abuse to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Sealed court records of mental health treatment are also shared for child- or elder-abuse investigations and can be unsealed if the information is deemed of public interest.

Besides, most mentally ill people don't commit a massacre or harm others. The greater risk is they'll turn a gun on themselves.

Senate Bill 2081 is a straightforward measure advocated by Attorney General Roy Cooper. It would require clerks of court to report commitments to the national registry, and provide a process for removing that record if a person is deemed no longer ill. There's a compelling public interest in taking this step: Keeping guns out of the wrong hands.