Over the years, Michelle Tenorio has seen all kinds of people buy all kinds of things.
At her store, Gateway Jewelry and Pawn in Athens, Tenorio sells jewelry, electronics, musical instruments and a range of other goods. But the store’s most sought-after items are guns.
The purchase of those guns potentially could come at a much higher price than the one on the tag hanging from its barrel.
“We’ve had a customer come in, just seemed completely normal,” she said, “and he got into a taxi going home and was playing with the gun,” scaring the driver. The driver immediately called the police.
The gun was confiscated by local authorities, who then discovered that Tenorio’s customer had a history of serious mental disorders.
Under federal law, it is illegal to sell firearms or ammunition to anyone whom the seller knows to have or has reasonable cause to believe “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” But Tenorio had no way of knowing about this buyer’s mental history.
Merchants try to comply with current law and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
Pawn shops like Gateway require customers to fill out a Firearms Transaction Record. Once the forms are filled out, the clerk types the buyer’s information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, a program created by the FBI to determine whether a buyer is eligible to buy firearms or explosives. Minutes later, the person’s criminal history and approval status show up on the computer screen.
The buyer’s mental health status, however, does not show up on the background check. That form of screening does nothing to prevent a person with mental illness from purchasing a gun.
That leaves Tenorio and others like her to rely on their personal judgment to make up for what the databases lack. Tenorio is within her legal rights to refuse to sell to a person who appears worrisome, but in doing so she has to rely on her gut feeling, and that is not foolproof.
“We go for the criminal background, so if they come back clean, there’s no way of knowing” about possible mental problems, she said.
Advocates for people with mental illness, meanwhile, emphasize that people with mental health conditions are no more likely than others to commit homicides or other violent acts. Most violent crimes are committed by people who do not have a mental illness, the advocates say.
Complicated legal issues
Attorney Jason Sterzer is interested in the delicate balance between adequate gun control and the public’s constitutional right to bear arms — especially since the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011.
When those massacres were reported, Sterzer was immediately bothered by the fact that both shooters, despite well-documented histories of threats and bizarre, menacing behavior, were able to purchase guns legally.
“In my view, the most crucial thing to understand about firearm regulation is that more regulations targeted at the law-abiding general public or regulations targeted at the type of weapon will not solve the problem,” said Sterzer, who wrote about these issues in the March 2012 issue of The Journal of Legal Medicine. “The solution, rather, lies in identifying those who would use the weapon to commit crimes and preventing them from gaining access to firearms.”
Sterzer’s research reveals a seeming paradox: States with the most restrictive gun laws have the highest rates of gun murders.
These crimes, he emphasized, are often committed by people with no history of mental illness.
“A blanket federal gun ban on mental disorders would not be fair,” Sterzer said. It would be a great injustice to strip constitutional rights from people who’ve been labeled as having depression or other common emotional disorders, he said. “This is not the answer. Rather, lawmakers have looked and should continue to look at whether the individual is a danger to themselves or others.”
Stricter state and federal regulations, Sterzer says, are not the best way to do it.
“More firearm regulations does not equal less firearm violence,” he said. “States which have the tightest gun control laws have the highest murder rates by firearms. Smart laws and effective implementation of those laws will make a difference.”
Gun rights efforts
Gun control advocates are not the only people pushing their cause. In some states, there are efforts to expand gun rights.
Last month, the Georgia House approved legislation that would allow individuals who have been voluntarily admitted for inpatient mental illness or substance abuse treatment to get a gun license.
The bill, which was supported by the state gun rights organization GeorgiaCarry.org, would have required officials to check whether applicants have ever been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment in the past five years.
Under the legislation, judges would be given the power to grant a license to anyone who has sought treatment, voluntarily or not. The bill would require applicants to authorize the release of their treatment records and provide recommendations from their providers. The involuntary treatment records would then have to be entered into a database. Judges would have to run checks, using the information in the database, before issuing a license.
Also under the bill, a person currently being represented by a guardian or conservator due to a mental illness, or who has threatened others in the past five years, would be banned from purchasing a gun.
The bill gained considerable support but ultimately did not win approval of the full Legislature. It died on the last day of the General Assembly session over a provision to allow guns on college campuses.
In the wake of the 2012 Connecticut school massacre, President Obama has proposed national legislation on gun control. Those proposals include bans on certain weapons and expanded background checks to prevent firearms from ending up in the hands of criminals or people with mental illness.
Political analysts say expanded background checks are more likely to pass Congress than weapons bans, because polls indicate that expanded background checks have greater public support.
But under current background check laws, Tenorio, the pawn shop owner, believes that relying on her gut may be her best line of defense against selling guns to people who appear to be dangerously mentally ill.
Alicia Smith is currently pursing her master’s degree in Health and Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia.