A few years back, I was on the advisory board of a trust fund for persons with spinal cord damage and traumatic brain injuries. The board reviewed requests to fund items that would help eligible applicants improve their quality of life: modifications to the home, specialized rehab therapy -- basic things like that.
A very non-standard request the board once reviewed came to mind after Friday's tragedy in Connecticut, though.
One beneficiary of the trust requested funding to purchase a rifle, along with personalized modifications to his wheelchair he thought would help him use the weapon. His spinal cord injury reduced muscular control of his arms, and his hands regularly shook. The modifications were for a circular brace to be mounted on his wheelchair's armrest, into which he could insert the barrel of the weapon. With these modifications, he could safely take up the hobby of hunting, the applicant said. (Of course, while the brace might help control any aim-damaging wiggle, the user would have to be in perfect alignment with his target, both horizontally and vertically, in order for it to be any good.)
The advisory board of this still-new trust fund was taken aback. It hadn't anticipated receiving requests like this, and no strict parameters of limitation had ever been created. Funding of a wheelchair ramp? Sure, that was expected. But to fund the purchase of a weapon for someone incapable of controlling it, not even with the make-shift, untested accommodation also requested? Nobody saw that one coming.
I spoke about the situation with a couple of police officers I knew in my then-hometown of New Orleans, hoping to get some insight that would provide me with a law-based argument to deny the request. Are there any laws that restrict weapon sales to persons who might be physically compromised in their safe operation, I asked.
One officer sighed and the other laughed. There is no such law, it turns out. "A person who is blind and has no arms can legally buy a gun," I was told.
I kept recalling that conservation while watching news about Friday's incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Early reports say shooter Adam Lanza may have had Asperger syndrome, a developmental disability that some studies infer could be relevant to violent behavior.
While there are no gun restrictions pertaining to physical handicaps, there are laws that are supposed to prevent gun sales to mentally disabled persons. The problem, though, is that these laws don't work.
18 USC - 922 makes it illegal to sell a gun to anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution."
Note the limitation; the mental deficiency must be documented by the state for the law to be applicable. As a result, you can have life-long addiction to antidepressants and think you're the Easter Bunny -- but you can still buy a weapon until a judge or crazy shack rules you nuts.
Even if a judge does declare you mentally incompetent, it's still very likely that you can get a gun. Forty-three states aren't fully reporting relevant court rulings to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (or "NICS"), according to the "Fatal Gaps" report issued last year by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
In fact, 23 states had reported less than 100 mental health rulings since NICS went into effect in 1999, the Oct. 2011 study found. Seventeen states had submitted fewer than 10 cases, and four didn't offer any at all.
A case-in-point to the effects of this deficiency is the tragic 2007 incident at Virginia Tech, when 32 were killed and another 17 wounded. Less than two years prior, shooter Seung Hui Cho was ruled mentally incompetent and subsequently hospitalized for evaluation and therapy. The court records were never reported to NICS, though. Cho was able to pass background checks when he purchased weapons on two occasions just a couple of months before the massacre.
Cho is just one example, too. Of the 63 mass shootings that occurred in the U.S. since 1982, 51 of the obviously deranged killers acquired their guns (36 of which were assault weapons) legally and without contest.
South Carolina's compliance with NICS seems weak, as well. The unidentified official who provided the state's data to the "Fatal Gaps" report said South Carolina has no system to collect relevant information. Only 17 cases were reported in 13 years, and the only way the state learned of these mentally-incompetent court rulings was when those 17 applied for concealed weapons permits; they already had guns.
The state's agencies aren't willing to provide the needed records, the unnamed source said, and even though South Carolina has its own law very similar to the U.S. Code (restricting anyone "adjudicated mentally incompetent" from owning or buying a weapon). Also, South Carolina has not passed any law pertaining to NICS compliance, Mayors Against Illegal Guns' study reports.