|Seung Hui Cho slipped through a loophole in Virginia law when he bought his gun. Lawmakers in that state fixed the problem.|
The deadly mass shooting in Tucson on Saturday was by no means the first to raise questions about how a mentally ill person was able to buy a firearm.
In some cases, state or federal authorities took steps to limit such tragedies. In others, questions about the ease with which some mental patients bought weapons went unanswered.
Here, we examine 10 incidents that share similarities with the Tucson massacre, and look at the way the public and lawmakers reacted to them. One trend revealed is the evolution of laws and background checks that have resulted in fewer lunatics buying weapons -- and probably fewer tragic shooting sprees.
First: The one that sparked the most well-known gun-control act, the Brady Law.
1. John Hinkley
Despite getting busted for trying to smuggle a gun on a plane in Tennessee, Hinckley had no problem buying two .22-caliber handguns in Dallas a few days later. He used one of the weapons, a Röhm RG-14 revolver, in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.
Hinckley suffered from and had been treated for mental illness before the shooting, but no computerized background check at the gun store was available back then. Although a 1968 federal law banned certain mental patients from buying guns, though it's unclear whether Hinckley's psychiatric treatments would have blocked him from buying guns in Texas even if a background check had taken place.
National outrage over the shooting, which wounded Reagan and three others, spurred the passage of the Brady Law, named after victim Jim Brady. In 1993, Reagan expressed support for the measure, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The law stopped the "lie-and-buy" method of gun purchases by prohibiting buyers and began the modern background-check system. According to the Brady Campaign, nearly two million attempts by criminals or mentally ill people to buy guns have been thwarted since the law's passage.
2. Joseph Wesbecker
A workplace massacre that occurred a few years before the Brady Law passed helped illustrate why it was needed. Joseph Wesbecker killed nine people in Louisville, Kentucky, with an AK-47 he bought at a gun store. He lied on the federal form that required him to note that he'd been treated for mental illness, and no computer system was in place to verify his info.
Kentucky's gun laws remain nearly as permissive as Arizona's, with few state restrictions on sales and a law that allows concealed weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol.
3. Henry Levy.
Levy, a 46-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, opened fire on four hotel guests in New Jersey in 1994, wounding two of them seriously. The shooting immediately raised questions about how Levy, with his history of psychiatric treatement, obtained his gun.
New Jersey has some of the most restrictive gun-control laws in the country. According to a 1994 New York Times article, residents wanting to buy a handgun must first fill out a form obtained from a local police station. Any kind of psychiatric care must be listed. Levy got one of the forms before moving out of New Jersey, but he never returned it.
He and his family moved to Phoenix, where Levy had no problem buying a Ruger 9-millimeter. Then, as now, Arizona demands only that the buyer have no previous commitment to a mental-health institution or no adjudication as as a mental patient (meaning that a judge has declared the person mentally ill.)
When Levy moved back to New Jersey, that state didn't require him to declare his new gun or submit to a background check as long as he kept the gun in his home. Normally, residents of New Jersey must register handguns, and non-registered handguns can't be transported legally within the state by residents. The state doesn't appear to have changed the law after the Levy case -- which resulted in a sensational case last year in which a man who bought guns in Colorado faced a seven-year prison sentence for possessing them in the trunk of his car. The sentence was commuted in December.
4. Lisa Duy
On January 14, 1999, 24-year-old Lisa Duy walked into the lobby of a TV station in Salt Lake City and opened fire with a Smith and Wesson 9mm. She wounded a security guard and killed a young mother before getting tackled. She was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and had been committed by a judge to an institution about a year before the shooting. Yet a background check cleared her to buy the gun at Doug's Shoot'N Sports in Utah about two hours before she used it to kill. The breakdown in the system, according to media reports, came because mental-health records subject to privacy laws weren't shared with the FBI for its national background-checking system.
5. Michael McDermott.
In 2000, Massachusetts law banned people from buying guns if they'd been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Yet McDermott was able to obtain a state firearms-registration card and buy three guns in the state, despite previous commitments for his mental health. He later killed seven people in his Wakefield workplace.
One article about McDermott points out that in the two years preceding the massacre, only 92 people had been blocked from obtaining a gun license because of mental-health issues. Police, who gave out the licenses, weren't getting enough information about mental patients from the state health department, apparently.
A more robust system in Illinois, the article points out, stopped nearly 4,000 people from buying guns in a three-year period in the 1990s.
6. Peter Troy
New York's famously strict gun control laws didn't stop Troy from buying a rifle in 2002, then using it on two people in a Lynbrook, New York church. New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy recalled the Troy case this week as an example of a system failure. Though Troy was a paranoid schizophrenic who had been committed for a time in a mental institution, he was cleared by a federal background check.
This one seems like another communication failure between the people who know someone's loony and the federal database that might block such a person from buying a gun.
7. Farron Barksdale
Barksdale bought a rifle on Christmas Eve, 2003, then killed two Alabama police officers with it in early January 2004. In a recurring theme, Alabama hadn't reported Barksdale's committments to mental institutions to federal authorities, so he sailed through a background check. He died mysteriously a few days after beginning a life sentence. The state later paid his mother in a wrongful-death settlement.
8. Frank Lyles
Though he'd been "in and out of state hospitals" his whole life for schizophrenia, the background check performed at a Nevada gun store in 2003 cleared Lyles to make a purchase. Days later, on September 30, 2003, Lyles shot a man in Las Vegas, then wounded two cops.
9. Ed Liu
Liue had been treated for his schizophrenia for 20 years, then stopped taking his meds for a few months in 2005. In August of that year, he bought a Glock 23 from Lone Wolf, the Glendale gun store with a name that seems to cater to people like Liu and the suspect in the Giffords shooting, Jared Loughner. A background check didn't turn up any evidence of his previous problems -- meaning yet another fatal communication breakdown. Liu killed two innocent Walmart workers. He was found mentally incompetent by a judge and remains under state care.
10. Seung Hui Cho
As the media's been pointing out, Cho used a Glock 19 to commit the country's worst campus shooting -- the same gun used by Jared Loughner in Saturday's attack. (Cho didn't have the 31-round magazines used by Loughner, though.) Thirty-two students and teachers were slain in the infamous slaughter at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.
In Virginia at the time, the state was required to report in-patient commitment orders to the feds, so such a history would show up in a background check and block a gun sale. But a report by the Virginia Governor's office soon concluded, according to page 32 of the report, that:
The lack of a requirement in the Virginia Code to certify outpatient commitment orders to the CCRE resulted in Cho's name not being entered in the database, which could have prevented his purchase of firearms.
The report made several recommendations for changes to the law, some of which were made within two weeks of the shooting.
We'll throw in one extra case here -- that of John Patrick Bedell. We can't call it a rampage, thanks to quick-shooting security guards. But it does look like one that proves stiffer regulations on the mentally ill can prevent a gun purchase.
Bedell was denied a gun purchase in California, but he had no problem finding a 9mm at a Nevada gun show a few days later. In March 2010, he showed up at the Pentagon in Washington DC and began shooting, wounding two security guards before he was shot and killed.
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According to Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign, quoted in a Southern California Public Radio article about Bedell's case:
In California... you can get into the system where you're prohibited from having a gun if you've been detained or apprehended for examination of your mental condition, if you've been treated for a mental illness or disorder, if a person has communicated to a licensed psychotherapist a serious threat of physical violence against an identifiable victim, a threshold that allows a lot more people that people have concerns about.
As New Times pointed out on Monday, Arizona law could have prevented Loughner from buying his Glock. But in this case, and as our examples from other states show, results depend on how the law is applied.