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Should Mentally Ill Buy Guns?

Controversy Brews Over Possible Restrictions On Gun Purchases

Privacy for the mentally ill is more important than the public's right to protection from the potential dangers of mentally ill gun owners, says the president of the National Mental Health Association.

Michael Faenza tells Steve Kroft that, despite a 1968 law prohibiting firearms sales to people who have been involuntarily committed, using medical records as a red flag denies an already stigmatized group their right to privacy.

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

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.

Most of those records are being kept private, thanks to a loophole in the Brady law requiring background checks of all gun buyers. When the law was passed, after the shooting of President Reagan and his press secretary James Brady, Congress neither provided funding for states to collect information on the severely mentally ill nor required them to report it to the federal government.

As a result, so few states do any reporting of this kind that only the names of one in 30 persons who have been involuntarily committed are in the federal database.

Even that is too many, says Faenza, because, he says, studies show that past history of severe mental illness does not augur future violence. "If we want to be serious about hand guns, targeting people with mental illness is not the place to start," he tells Kroft, pointing out that other factors, such as being sexually or physically abused or having alcohol problems, represent a greater risk to do violence.

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 on the issue, but believes safety must be paramount.

"There are many people…who are very [mentally] ill who have never been violent," he tells Kroft, "[but] there are certainly a number of people that I would not want to see have guns… Whatever the risk is, however low, it's not worth the risk."