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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tighten gun laws regarding mentally ill

People seek cover at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport during a shooting attack in January. If someone who sets off all the alarms that accused shooter Esteban Santiago did can still access a gun legally, the law should be changed.
People seek cover at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport during a shooting attack in January. If someone who sets off all the alarms that accused shooter Esteban Santiago did can still access a gun legally, the law should be changed.
Published Feb. 10, 2017

This much is agreed: Mental illness and guns make for a dangerous mix. So every mass shooting in which the gunman has a history of psychological problems prompts politicians to declare that access to guns by the mentally ill should be tightened. But in Florida and across the nation, existing laws set too high a threshold and contain too many exceptions. There has to be a better way to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable, and lawmakers should not forget the promises they make in the aftermath of mass shootings.

Florida law denies some firearm purchases on mental health grounds. Anyone who is adjudicated mentally incompetent by a judge or found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity is flagged in a state database if they try to purchase a new gun. In 2013, lawmakers included people who are voluntarily committed to a mental health facility after having an involuntary examination under Florida's Baker Act and being declared a danger to themselves or others. That's a worthy expansion to the no-buy list, but it doesn't do enough.

For one, the restrictions only apply to guns purchased through licensed dealers, who are required to perform background checks. Private and person-to-person sales are not covered by the background check requirement. And the laws don't apply to guns people already own. Second Amendment supporters may loudly to object to any suggestion of taking away anyone's gun. But other states have passed sensible laws that allow, with due process, the temporary confiscation of guns by people who pose a risk of violence, including to themselves. A "cooling off period" for someone emerging from a mental health crisis is not an unreasonable restriction.

The latest example of the inadequacy of current law is Esteban Santiago, the accused shooter in last month's rampage at the Fort Lauderdale airport. After telling FBI agents in Alaska that U.S. intelligence agencies were controlling his mind, his gun was seized. He was given a psychiatric evaluation and hospitalized. But with no legal finding of mental illness, Santiago got his gun back. Two months later, authorities said, he flew to Florida with the gun — packed separately and legally in a checked bag — retrieved it, loaded it and killed five people. If someone who sets off all the alarms that Santiago did can still access a gun legally, the law should be changed.

Instead, congressional Republicans have voted to abandon an Obama-era policy that would have added about 75,000 people to the national background check database who have mental health problems that prevent them from working and managing their own affairs. Most mentally ill people are not violent. But that does not mean they should be trusted with firearms. In Florida, the only bills with a chance of passing are proposals that make it easier to carry guns publicly. Tightening the laws on gun access by the mentally ill would do more to make Floridians safer than allowing firearms at public schools and universities.

If politicians in Washington and Tallahassee are serious about stemming gun violence, they should act on their own warnings about the dangers of mentally disturbed people accessing guns. That means passing laws that flag more people who have shown tendencies toward violence and instability, expanding background checks and, yes, temporarily taking away weapons that people already own.