Citation(s) from the literature library

Swanson, Jeffrey W, Allison Gilbert Robertson, Linda K Frisman, Michael A Norko, Hsiu-Ju Lin, Marvin S Swartz and Philip J Cook. 2013 ‘Preventing Gun Violence Involving People with Serious Mental Illness - Legacy of 1968 Law.’ Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis; Part I, Chapter 3, p. 35. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 25 January

Relevant contents

…The legacy of the 1968 Gun Control Act prohibitions remains with us today, long after civil commitment reforms and deinstitutionalization have run their course, radically reducing and reshaping the ranks of the involuntarily committed (Appelbaum 1994; Fisher and Grisso 2010).

The categories of exclusion were encoded in federal regulations and retained in the 1994 Brady Violence Prevention Act, which instituted background checks - now increasingly conducted through the NICS - to screen out prohibited persons who may attempt to buy guns from a licensed gun dealer. The mental health prohibitions, in particular, are based on a set of assumptions that may have sounded reasonable 45 years ago, but today invite careful scrutiny in light of voluminous research evidence that has accumulated over the ensuing decades.

The suspect assumptions are these: that serious mental illnesses - of the sort that landed people in mental hospitals against their will - were strongly and causally associated with risk of violent behavior; that people with these dangerous mental health conditions will inevitably come to the attention of psychiatrists, who could then reliably discern the risk of violence and confine the appropriate patients to a mental hospital; that, once discharged, involuntarily treated psychiatric patients will always carry with them some risk of relapse to their dangerous mental health conditions and, thus, should be categorically prohibited from obtaining firearms; and, finally, that the law could effectively deter prohibited individuals from purchasing firearms from a licensed gun dealer - either because they would not try to buy a gun or because they would truthfully disclose their gun - disqualifying mental health histories in the attempt and, thus, be stopped. In order for the logic of the law to work effectively, all of these assumptions had to hold true; they were links in a chain of prevention. As it turned out, all of the assumptions were flawed…

[NICS = National Instant Criminal Background Check System]

Sources cited:

Appelbaum, Paul. 1994. Almost a Revolution: Mental Health Law and the Limits of Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fisher, William, and Thomas Grisso. 2010. "Commentary: Civil Commitment Statute - 40 Years of Circumvention." The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law 38(3): 365–368.

ID: Q6721

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