A very interesting story was aired last night on Fox 2 News. It featured a story about a woman - Jannette Williams - who was reported as having battled several mental illnesses over the past 30 years. Among the diagnoses she has received were Manic Depression, Bi-Polar Disorder, and Schizophrenia.
The most shocking revelation of the story was the allegation that she was allowed to buy a handgun - a .25 caliber "automatic" - in 1983 which was eventually stolen and that she was also later approved in 2011 to buy another pistol that she did not pursue. Williams, presumably, came forward and went public to the media in an effort to share her story and demonstrate that she should not have been authorized to buy a handgun. She claims that she even wrote to President Obama in the past to encourage him to continue calling for more gun control because people like her should not be able to buy a gun.
In an era in which the current POTUS has steadily called for more gun control - despite his lame duck status, a dearth of needed votes on Capitol Hill, and a vote of no confidence from the American public on terrorism - the local media was only too happy to push the story. The obvious elephant in the room: How was she legally cleared to buy a handgun?
Presumably, she does not have a Michigan Concealed Pistol License (CPL) because one was not mentioned or shown, while a yellow Michigan Pistol Purchase Permit was proudly displayed, and that Williams mentioned getting her approval from the intersection of the "Boulevard and Woodward."
Under current Michigan law, persons without a CPL but who wish to buy a handgun can have a background check performed at a Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL) - also known as a gun shop - and buy it directly or can get a Purchase Permit from their local police department for a private transfer. However, back in 2011, when she alleged that she was last cleared to buy a handgun, all non CPL-holders had to get Purchase Permits from their local police agency. Accordingly, Detroit residents were all processed at the police station on the corner of Grand Blvd. and Woodward.
Thus, Williams would have had a background check performed on her at the aforementioned Detroit police precinct. Presumably, her mental illnesses were not in the system when she was checked, if her story is authentic. If she passed, she would have been given a Pistol Purchase Permit like the one she was holding on the television piece. Also, she would have needed to complete her pistol purchase transaction at any time within the next 10 days.
Since she allegedly did not follow through with a pistol purchase in 2011 - at her last alleged approval - she was required to complete some paperwork at the gun shop when she bought a pistol in 1983. Among the paperwork that she would have been required to complete is a form known as 4473.
The Form 4473 in its current state - and in some fashion in 1983 - asks the purchaser to truthfully answer its questions under threat of perjury - a felony conviction. Among the listed questions would have been a statement to be marked "Yes/No" as to whether the purchaser "had been adjudicated as mentally defective by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that you are a danger to yourself or to others or are incompetent to manage your own affairs OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?"
So, it is entirely possible that a person, such as Williams, with the illnesses that she claims to have can honestly answer the aforementioned question truthfully and still be qualified to buy a handgun. This would be the case if her diagnoses were never officially recorded or documented outside of her personal medical history with her doctor.
So, an obvious barrier exists with respect to disclosure of medical info to determine mental fitness for a firearm purchase. That obstacle is better known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which was enacted in 1996. Among its many provisions, it requires the protection and confidential handling of protected health information.
How do we remedy the issue? Easy, a change can be made to the question asked on the Form 4473 or the HIPAA Law can be amended to allow medical records to be checked for firearm purchase eligibility. Neither of these solutions is an expansion of background checks. They are both tweaks to the current process.
More than anything, I believe a word of caution is due here. Only a qualified mental health professional is qualified to determine whether a mental condition possessed by a patient is a genuine threat to himself or another person. Accordingly, these evaluations should not be performed by a question on a form or a query asked by a FFL.
A true expansion of background checks would be mandating checks on transfers not currently being performed. For example, in Michigan and in a number of other states, background checks are not required on private transfers of long guns - rifles and shotguns. Statistically, they are not needed. Significantly far more people are killed and far more crimes are done with just bare fists, sharp objects, and hard hand-held blunt "things" relative to long guns.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not disclose one additional fact. Bad guys who can't pass mental health background checks are not going to acquire firearms by any channels that require them. In short, no law is going to make bad guys change their behavior. Bad guys do what bad guys do. Don't let the liberal media and smooth talking lame ducks trick you out of your rights.
UPDATE: I had an opportunity to speak with a fellow gun rights advocate from MN - Andrew Rothman - on this issue today. As a result, I agree that due process should still be afforded to the patient if a determination has been made by a mental health professional that the patient is a threat to himself or others. As such, an aforementioned diagnosis that is injurious to his gun rights should be documented and adjudicated by a court. If that determination is made in court, then and only then should the patient be reported to NICS.
Rick Ector is a National Rifle Association credentialed Firearms Trainer, who provides Michigan CCW Class training in Detroit for students at his firearms school - Rick's Firearm Academy of Detroit.
Ector is a recognized expert in firearm safety and has been featured extensively in the national and local media: Associated Press, UPI, Fox news, New York Times, USA Today, Bearing Arms, NRAnews, Guns Digest, Tactical-Life, The Truth About Guns, The Politics Daily, Fox News Detroit, The Detroit News, The Detroit Examiner, WJLB, WGPR, and the UrbanShooterPodcast.
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