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Debate rages over guns and mental health
Joshua Works, owner of Mission Essentials in Hinesville, shows Derek Cano a firearm. Cano serves with the 57th Calvary at Fort Stewart. He and Works say they firmly believe in the right to bear arms. - photo by Phgoto by Patty Leon
In the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine reported to the Virginia-Pilot newspaper, that he was working on legislation to close a loophole in the state’s gun laws.
The loophole reportedly allowed 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho to purchase guns even after a judge indicated he posed a potential threat and signed a temporary detention order to that fact in 2005.
Because Cho was ordered to undergo treatment at an outpatient facility, the Virginia court system did not consider it an involuntary commitment and therefore the information was not listed on the National Instant Background Check System.
 In Georgia
Georgia, like many states, prohibits the sale of firearms to those who have been adjudicated or involuntarily committed for mental health and controlled substance abuse and uses many databases to check that information.
According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, in addition to using the Federal NICS, Georgia also checks the databases of Georgia criminal histories, including misdemeanor family violence convictions, FBI criminal histories, state and national wanted persons records; state and national protection order records and the Georgia Mental Health — involuntary hospitalizations.
Although the state of Georgia checks the NICS, it doesn’t report to them. According to the FBI, there are currently 28 states that do not report mental health records to the FBI’s NICS.
In 1993, Congress passed a law requiring states to supply mental health records on people who have been declared mentally defective or have been involuntarily committed, but the U. S. Supreme Court reversed that decision in 1997, saying states cannot be forced to take part in a federal program. For many states, the issues came down to lack of technology to be able to share the information and privacy issues.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, along with privacy rights between patient and provider have made it virtually impossible for law enforcement officials and the government to know the number of potential threats.
As the laws stand now, information is currently furnished through the Georgia Crime Information Center, and even that has its limits.
According to Georgia code 35-3-34(e)(2), the Georgia Crime Information Center shall be provided such information on persons involuntarily hospitalized after March 22, 1995, and the records are purged every five years.
Because of the Virginia Tech shooting, the U.S. House is considering a bill that would encourage all states to share mental health information and provide over $1 billion in grants to help states cover the costs of updating their technology and inter-agency communication.
But the current laws have no way of checking the millions of mental health records of patients who voluntarily seek medical treatment and are currently being evaluated by their psychiatrists, officials say. 
They note that while it is true, not everyone who is mentally ill is a threat, it remains there is no way to know about a potential threat unless a psychiatrist or psychologist reports it and many are reluctant to do so to avoid privacy issues and laws.
Joshua Works, president and owner of Mission Essentials in Hinesville, reiterated the Constitution guarantees every American the right to bears arms.
“My belief is that every law-abiding citizen should be allowed to own a firearm,” Works said. “If someone comes into my store and they pass a background check, they should be able to purchase a firearm.”
Works, a former soldier, said it is the government’s responsibility to put a system in place to ensures someone with a history of criminal activity or mental illness does not have access to firearms, but he said stricter gun control is not needed.
“My job is not to judge someone. My job is to do what is required by the government in the sales of firearms. They are the ones responsible for that aspect,” he said. “If there is a proven fact in the government’s system and psychological proof that a person is wrong in having a firearm, I support that.”
But he also said, “... a firearm would not stop this type of person from harming people in a different manner either using a knife or building a bomb.”
Dick Lonsdale, owner of Midway Guns and Sporting Goods, said, “If someone is going to do something evil, they don’t necessarily need to do it with a gun. If someone wants to kill someone, they will find a way to do it.”
Both Works and Lonsdale say current laws are sufficient.
“There are plenty of gun control laws right now. In fact there are more than enough,” Lonsdale said.
David Shern, president of Mental Health America, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, said more federal regulation would not make the United States safer and may unfairly stigmatize those who are treated for mental illness.
He said it may prevent others from seeking help and would not stop anyone from attaining guns through other methods.
The records of gun sold are kept by the legitimate gun dealers as required by law but anyone who owns a gun can sell it to someone else, including someone who may turn out to be mentally ill.
“When we do sell a gun we have to keep the records forever and if I go out of business everything I have must be turned over to the ATF,” Lonsdale said. “However you can purchase a gun and later sell it to someone else and as long as you don’t knowingly sell it to someone who is not permitted to own one it is within the law,” he explained.
Lonsdale recommends that the parties involved should make sure they write out a receipt for the transaction and include an area where the buyer signs attesting that there is nothing in his/her record that would preclude him/her from gun ownership.
If anything, both Works and Lonsdale said that the lesson they learned from the Virginia Tech incident validated their thoughts that a person should have the rights to bear arms anywhere they want.
“I believe that if someone in that school was carrying a firearm for their own protection (with all the necessary permits for concealment) they would have been able to stop or eliminate the threat,” Works said.
“If a member of the faculty that was in the same area as the killer were armed, well, I’m not sure if it would have helped but it definitely could not hurt,”  Lonsdale agreed. “Not every member of the faculty would want to carry firearms but for those who want to, they should be given the opportunity to go through the background check and receive the training just like the airline pilots after 9/11,” he said.
The senate canceled the voting on the issue of House Bill 89 and Senate Bill 43, allowing for fewer restrictions currently imposed on gun owners, due to the Virginia Tech incident. The bills would make it easier to conceal a firearm in your vehicle without a concealed weapon permit and would not allow employers to impose restrictions on employees wishing to keep a firearm in their vehicle while on company property. They will probably revisit the issue in next year’s legislative session.
As far as looking at legislation to have stricter gun control laws in the state Rep. Al Williams said, “The chance that the state would allow any strengthening of current gun laws are slim to none.”
Williams believes that any attempt to further restrict gun ownership will be met by severe opposition by the NRA, an organization he feels runs the gun control issues for the state.
“I think anything we can do to save a life and get guns out of the hands of those who should not have them should be looked at,” Williams stated. “If it saves just one life it is successful.”
For some in law enforcement, the issue is maintaining officers’ safety.
“Not knowing someone’s state of mind is definitely a threat,” Sheriff Don Martin said. “If someone is a threat to themselves and others something should be done to keep a gun out of their hands.”
On May 1, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Paul Helmke, announced in front of the National Press Club a series of recommendations that would strengthen current gun control.
Some of the recommendations include passing the NICS Improvement Act, which provides funding incentives for states to improve their ability to report information to the NICS. It would require background checks on all gun sales, not just from licensed dealers, and impose a waiting period under the Brady Law.
Helmke wants every state to review their procedures for entering information into the NICS and he believes that Congress should pass legislation that will keep dangerous people from getting guns.
Helmke is hoping the democratically controlled Congress will push the issue because they have previously been supportive of gun control laws.
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