Mental Health Check for Gun Buys? Talk About a Straw Man...

In the wake of the Tucson massacre, there have been, as you might expect, a number of folks who have suggested that maybe Arizona, and the nation, would benefit from stricter gun legislation.

My recent commentary "Day of the Dead," published in this week's New Times, argues that reining in Sand Land's gun nut culture would be a good thing. Perhaps some simple, common sense hurdles placed in deranged killer Jared Lee Loughner's way could have made Loughner's shooting spree less likely, or less lethal.

But, reading the comments left on the opinion piece, you'd think the article was calling for the elimination of all handguns, as well as the gutting of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

While those might be interesting propositions, the only ones discussing them as if they're legitimate are the firearm fanatics themselves.

This is, of course, is a classic straw man fallacy, where the writer sets up a false premise, knocks it down, and then claims to have refuted their opponent's argument.

My colleague Ray Stern uses such straw man arguments in his recent blog item, "Five Reasons Why a Mental Health Evaluation Should NOT be a Prerequisite For Buying a Gun."

Who is proposing such a prerequisite? Stern does not enlighten us here. Instead he goes about arguing why it would be wrong to have such a prerequisite, and he does the same for a pre-gun buy urinalysis, another "straw man."

To be sure, there are some wacky ideas floating around, such as New York Republican Congressman Pete King's 1,000 foot gun-free zone for public officials.

To cop a line from The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, can us regular schmos get that same gun-free buffer as well?

Still, Stern is not discussing any specific proposal that I'm aware of. I contacted the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and spoke with senior attorney Dan Vice. Vice told me the Brady Campaign is not pushing for the elimination of all handguns.

Instead, the Brady Campaign is seeking reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, or at least the part having to do with high-capacity magazines, like the 31-round clip Loughner used. The 1994 assault weapons ban limited magazines to 10 rounds, but it expired in 2004, and Congress did not renew it.

The Brady Campaign also wants comprehensive background checks for all gun buys, more extensive than the "instant" FBI check purchasers receive at licensed gun dealers. In addition, the organization would like to see the loophole for gun shows and private sellers closed.

As for the "mental health check" Stern posits, that's not a Brady Campaign proposal, Vice told me. However, the release of mental health information could be a part of a more comprehensive background check. In some cases, it already is.

"Some states require gun purchasers to authorize a search of their mental health records," said Vice. "Obviously, just seeing a psychiatrist would be no problem, but if someone was noted to be a danger, a search of their record could reveal that."

Vice explained that Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state have such a requirement.

Even without a mental health records search, some states with more comprehensive background checks force the applicant to come in contact with authorities, according to Vice. In the case of someone like Loughner, just interacting with them could raise a red flag, more questions might be asked, and a gun permit might end up being denied.

Stern kvetches that going through a process like that in New York, say, could take "weeks" and, "the licensing process adds a lot to the cost of a gun."

Hey, cry me a river.

Life is full of inconveniences, restrictions, and forms. Hell, you even have to fill out a form to rent movies at Blockbuster. It's called civilization. The only way out, really, is living off the grid in a cave somewhere. Or anarchy.

Take cars. There are all sorts of restrictions on operating motor vehicles, many of which limit personal liberty. You have to have a license, insurance, not drive while intoxicated, wear seatbelts.

Automobile makers must comply with a catalogue of federal requirements.

And yet, pretty much anyone who wants a car in this country can buy one. If you want more than one car, it will add to your costs in various ways, the price of the license plates, for instance.

So, um, what's the big deal? Yes, the Second Amendment guarantees your right to bear arms. It does not, however, preclude the states or Congress from implementing certain legal restrictions. The First and Second Amendments are not absolutes. Nor should they be.

As for Stern's worry about the harm to Arizona's "robust gun industry," once again, it's hard for me to get teary-eyed here. Every industry has to deal with ever-shifting federal, state, and local regulations. And the gun industry does not deserve a pass.

Not all gun enthusiasts are against sane gun laws, but there are many out there who demand carte blanche. They want what they want, and they don't seem too troubled when other members of society have to deal with the bloody consequences. This is a petulant, juvenile, state of mind, one the adults in the discussion should reject.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons

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