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Getting Background Checks Backwards

internet cableKnow that old saying “putting the cart before the horse”? Well, that’s what the new background checks for gun purchases are doing. What is the point of background checks if we don’t first deal with our mental health care system and assure that every single bit of criminal data is accessible through easily used portals?

Do you know why we have had so many television crime dramas that involved paranoid schizophrenics living on our streets, unmedicated and unsupervised? Because our mental health system is one of the biggest victims of the Reagan budgets (day care was the other). It goes back that far. Our mental health care system had a lot of problems, particularly with its reliance on residential facilities, but gutting it was not the answer. And making it dependent on the insurance system has been a huge mistake.

Seven sessions of 45 minutes each over nine months. Do you think that’s enough to treat and cure someone who cannot function outside her own home? Well, that’s what Blue Cross/Blue Shield “approved” for a woman of my acquaintance last week. Five hours and fifteen minutes of therapy to deal with almost thirty years of causes. That is pretty typical of how our insurance system deals with mental health issues. Companies can limit payment for mental health hospitalization to three days. That’s really helpful, isn’t it?

All of our episodes of mass murder have involved a person or persons suffering from mental health issues. Some are severe, like Jared Loughner. Some are less obvious, like the boys at Columbine. But the issues are there, and they are not being properly treated because the system is broken.

And what good are background checks for “mental illness” if the law protects patient’s privacy? We do not have a system for alerting authorities of potentially dangerous mental health patients. Hell, we don’t even have a system that properly supports families dealing with dangerous family members. In some states, a family can get an involuntary admission for evaluation. Big effing deal. What happens after the period of evaluation is over? Not bloody much. So a man whose idea of dealing with a problem is to put his fist through a wall is discharged and sent home. Now, he’s even madder than before because he’s been locked away against his will. The next thing he hits won’t be a wall. It will be his wife or his elderly parents. Any idea where this can escalate to?

At my paying job, an assisted living facility for seniors, we had to wait over two months for a placement for a violent resident. The best we could manage was to get his family to take him out for a day while our staff went through and removed everything we thought he could use as a weapon from his apartment. The rest of the residents were terrified of him. It shouldn’t take that long to take care of any violent person, no matter how old they are.

I understand the concept of trying to integrate certain persons into the general population, but when the people we are talking about are not mentally handicapped, but mentally ill, is it really the best choice?

We are failing miserably at diagnosing and treating the mentally ill, but our legislators, in their rush to deal with the gun issue, are thinking that somehow the system exists that will allow background checks to cover the mentally ill.

And are we really sure about the sharing of data among our law enforcement agencies? I know things have gotten much better in the past four years. We no longer have situations where a single illegal immigrant can be arrested, charged and released on bail in four different states, deported in one, and no one ever picks up on the outstanding warrants? Hand to heaven, that really happened. He wasn’t stopped until he broke a Federal law. Hopefully, we no longer have situations where a city police department and a county sheriff’s office don’t even share information. But do we really have a system that will allow background checks when someone crosses state lines to buy a gun?

Many years ago, okay, it was probably 2000, I saw a show about Interpol’s computer criminal database. It was amazing. The closest thing I can compare it to is a 360° pie-chart genealogy chart. It starts with a known criminal and then connects him or her to known associates, casual associates, lunch meetings, dozens of cross connections. It is a system that made it possible for a French traffic cop to apprehend five Spanish bomb suspects. It’s that good. It had to be before 2001, because the Bush administration managed to get a network news report on the air which “debunked” the Interpol system, just about the time Dick Cheney was issuing his demand that there be no information sharing among law enforcement and only one person per jurisdiction would have access to terrorist information. The Obama administration has spent four years undoing what Cheney did, building databases that share information without having to go through an FBI or Marshalls office.

A gun background check database? We can’t even get a terrorist watchlist and no-fly list right.

How about dealing with the horses before we try to deal with the carts? I’m not suggesting stopping and waiting on the new gun laws, because the delay will prevent the laws ever being passed, but we must deal with the gaps in our current systems that will doom the background checks to failure.

We must have a better mental health system, and the ability of mental health professionals to list persons on a secure database that they believe may be a risk to the general population. We must have really, really good databases for criminals – both convicted and accused. That illegal immigrant I mentioned earlier – well, he was never tried and convicted of any of the crimes he was accused of, and they included spousal assault and child abuse along with the usual assault, battery and robbery stuff. He just kept jumping bail and state lines. And because he was not a convicted felon, he would have been able to buy a gun in any gun shop and pass a background check.

Lastly, there’s the issue of internet security. What good is a background check system if we cannot defend it from hackers who can download information from it, or vandalize it in some way?

Of course, doing any of this would involve getting more mental health coverage into the Affordable Care Act provisions, and putting money into law enforcement and internet security. And the chances of that happening?



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3 Responses to Getting Background Checks Backwards

  1. DovS

    March 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

    While I agree that mental health is something we need to address, I think you may be falling into the perfect solution fallacy. Our countries problems with gun violence won’t be solved by better background checks but it won’t be solved by mental health care either. Gun violence is a large and complex problem with many different causal factors. We should not be arguing about which factor to address. We should be addressing ALL of them because they all have an effect.

    • Adamas

      March 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      Unfortunately the politicians can’t see past what can get them elected/re-elected to even think past (please excuse the metaphor) what target will get them what they want.

  2. Pat Carbonell

    March 21, 2013 at 1:02 am

    I know of a violent autistic male who was being raised by his grandmother (his mother had died), and in spite of numerous calls to the police to come subdue him, numerous trips to the E.R. for the same, the simple fact that at 70+ yrs old she could not control him… the state never made an effort to find him a permanent placement. Not until he turned 18 – he is now in a group home. The only reason he never did serious harm to his grandmother was because of a neighbor who would, if she called him, go over and physically restrain the teen until the police/EMTs could be called. Shawn saved her life. The state would have let her die at the hands of her grandson… and then they would have locked him up.