Armed And Dangerous

Should The Mentally Ill Buy Guns?

Every year across the United States, roughly 1,000 homicides are committed by people with severe mental illness -- many of them crazed gunmen who wandered into a school, a church, or their own office, and for no apparent reason, opened fire.

You've seen and heard the stories.

As 60 Minutes originally reported last October, it is not supposed to be that way. The first piece of federal gun control legislation ever passed in the United States, way back in 1968, banned the sale of guns to people with a history of severe mental illness. Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.

Two years ago, Michael McDermott showed up for work at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Mass., with a bagful of guns. He then went on a murder rampage.

One of the first officers inside the building was Stephen Doherty, Wakefield's Chief of Police. He found seven victims, all dead, and McDermott sitting quietly in an office chair.

What was his state of mind? "He only made one statement," says Doherty. "'I don't speak German.'"

McDermott had been saying and doing irrational things for 15 years, and had twice been hospitalized in psychiatric wards. That should have disqualified him from getting a firearms permit, but he got one from his local police department in Rockland, Mass., just 30 miles from Wakefield.

Doherty is responsible for issuing gun permits and licenses. If someone came in with a mental health history like McDermott's - someone who was repeatedly hospitalized for mental illness - Doherty says he wouldn't be able to access that information.

“Under the present law, I wouldn't know that because that information is private,” says Doherty. “I'm not allowed to know that.”

That was supposed to change after President Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot and nearly killed by John Hinckley, a man with a history of mental illness.

But it didn't change -- even though Congress passed the Brady Bill, which created a system of instant background checks to screen all gun buyers and prevent sales to anyone barred by federal law from owning a firearm.

The system relies on an FBI database that is supposed to have the names of fugitives, felons and people that have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. But according to Jim Kessler of Americans for Gun Safety, which supports strict enforcement of existing gun laws, the system doesn't work when it comes to the mentally ill.

“It's nearly impossible to stop anybody with severe mental illness from buying a gun, even though it is against the law for them to buy a gun or possess a gun,” says Kessler.

“States are not automating the records of people who have been involuntarily institutionalized in a mental health facility. Our background check system is only as good as the records that states supply to that system.”

The government estimates that there are 2.7 million people in the United States who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions, and under federal law, are banned from owning firearms. But only about 90,000 names – one in 30 -- are in the computer.

Russell Weston's name wasn't there, even though he had been involuntarily institutionalized in Montana for delusional behavior. But the Illinois State police had no way of knowing that when they issued him a gun permit a year later. Weston went on to murder two policemen inside the U.S. Capitol, the same building where the Brady Bill was passed.

This happened, in part, because Congress left a huge loophole in the Brady Bill. It didn't provide the states with money to collect or maintain records on people with severe mental illness, and it didn't require the states to supply the information to the federal database.

When a former mental patient named Peter Troy went to this gun store in Mineola, New York, in March 2002, and bought a semi-automatic rifle that he used to murder a priest and a parishioner inside a Catholic church, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy decided the system had to change.

Congresswoman McCarthy has a personal connection to this issue. In 1993, an insane gunman named Colin Ferguson went on a shooting rampage on the Long Island Railroad, killing six people, including her husband, and wounding 19 others, including her son, who is still paralyzed.

McCarthy has introduced legislation that would close the loophole in the Brady Bill and require the states to supply the FBI with names of people who have been involuntarily institutionalized, states that didn't comply would lose some federal funding.

“It's not really a gun issue,” she says. “It's just making sure that the laws that are on the books are working correctly the way they were intended to be.”

You might think that there would be little opposition to such a move. But the opposition comes from two powerful special interest groups, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, that helped create the loophole in the first place.

One is the gun lobby. Larry Pratt is executive director of Gun Owners of America, which has 300,000 members and opposes any restrictions to anyone owning a gun. “We think this is simply another way of eliminating another large group of people from gun ownership in this country.”

The gun owners' allies in this fight are advocates for the mentally ill, like the National Mental Health Association. Although it has a completely different agenda than the gun lobby, its president, Michael Faenza, uses some of the same arguments.

“We feel that people with mental illness should not have special restrictions regarding firearms,” says Faenza.

And there can be no exceptions, says Faenza, even for those involuntarily committed to institutions. “We’re talking about much more than the right to buy a firearm. We’re talking about the right to have your medical records kept privately,” he tells Kroft.

Faenza says many states have passed laws protecting the privacy of the mentally ill and prohibit sharing mental health records with law enforcement. It is one of the reasons so few states supply names to the FBI database. Faenza says the information is subject to misuse, violates doctor-patient confidentiality, and discourages people from seeking treatment.

“If we want to be serious about hand guns, targeting people with mental illness is not the place to start,” says Faenza, pointing out that other factors, such as being sexually or physically abused or having alcohol problems, represent a greater risk to do violence.

Anthony Galioto would agree. In 1971, he was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. At the time, he was hearing voices and hallucinating. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

Eleven years after his hospitalization, Galioto, who was an avid hunter, sued the government to regain his right to buy a firearm. He got a letter from his doctor saying he'd been cured and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before the court could rule on the case, Congress changed the law, allowing exemptions for people like Galioto to buy firearms if they can show that they are no longer a threat to themselves or others.

"Supposing you have heart attacks, and you drive a car," argues Galioto. "Should I take your driver's license away from you, because I'm afraid you might pass out and crash into people on the sidewalk?"

Dr. Howard Zonana, Yale professor of medicine and law and chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s task force on the mentally ill and their access to guns, is torn between the rights of the mentally ill and the issue of public safety.

"I don't think there is any data to support that just targeting this group is justified as a whole group," says Zonana. "As a doctor and treater of patients, there are certainly a number of people that I would not wanna see have guns. Because I think whatever the risk is, however low, it's not worth the risk."

But Kessler disagrees. "Nobody wants to stigmatize the mentally ill. But when somebody walks into a church or walks into their office place and kills six or seven people, that is gonna stigmatize the mentally ill more than any law that we're talking about that keeps the mentally ill from getting guns."