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Gun Policy

Angry and Armed: How Some States Are Trying to Keep Guns Away from Volatile People

WDBJ shooting puts the focus on measures that go beyond background checks.

In the wake of the on-camera shooting deaths of two journalists at Virginia’s WDBJ TV station, gun-rights advocates have argued that there is nothing that could have prevented the shooter from getting his hands on a firearm. “Background checks can only identify those people with a mental health or criminal history,” wrote Bob Owens, author of the popular gun-politics blog Bearing Arms. “They can never function as a Minority Report–style ‘pre-crime’ system.”

No records have surfaced so far indicating that the gunman, Vester Lee Flanagan, had a history of felony offenses, adjudicated mental illness, or substance abuse — any of which would have showed up on a background check, and thus prevented him from obtaining a firearm. But Flanagan did have a history of aggressive behavior. During his tenure as a reporter at WDBJ, there were numerous complaints about his hostile treatment of coworkers, which ultimately led to his dismissalUpon learning of his termination, Flanagan threw objects at his at his supervisors and had to be physically removed from the station by police. Colleagues at earlier jobs recall similarly threatening behavior. 

But a pattern of angry outbursts alone doesn’t raise flags on a background check, and according to the ATF, Flanagan was able to legally purchase a Glock semiautomatic pistol weeks before the shooting. In this respect, his case fits into a specific category of gun crime. A study by Duke University’s Jeffrey Swanson and others found that nearly one in 10 Americans have both anger management problems and access to firearms. It’s a troubling finding, considering that Swanson has concluded that past violent behavior — not mental illness or substance abuse — is the strongest indicator of future violent behavior.

It’s also why experts such as Swanson urge public policymakers to consider tools that can prevent dangerous people from buying a firearm. Some of these measures already exists. Several states, have enacted laws that go beyond the federal background check system and can help prevent people with anger issues from obtaining guns — or take weapons out of their hands once they turn violent.

Blocking Volatile Persons from Buying a Gun

Swanson and his colleagues recommended in their study that those who’ve been arrested for violent misdemeanors should be banned from possessing a gun. Current federal policies only prohibit people convicted of crimes carrying at least a year of prison time, but California law follows Swanson’s logic. The state bars people convicted of a range of violent misdemeanors — including many that suggest a volatile temper, like battery or threatening a school official  — from owning a gun for 10 years. A smaller class of violent misdemeanors, including assault with a firearm, result in a lifetime ban. 

Other states have policies that gives police the discretion to deem someone too risky to be allowed to have a gun. Thirteen states have so-called “permit to purchase” system that require a prospective gun buyer to be vetted by local law enforcement before buying any type of firearm. These permits to purchase occasionally involve character references, which could alert law enforcement officials to anger issues. Residents of New Jersey, for instance, must apply for a “Firearm Purchaser Identification Card” that asks for “two reputable persons” other than relatives who can attest to one’s fitness to own a gun.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy have introduced legislation to facilitate a national permit to purchase system. And a recent bill loosening gun restrictions in North Carolina ultimately spared that state’s permit to purchase system after opposition from Democrats and local sheriffs. It’s easy to understand the policy’s appeal to law enforcement in particular: A June study by Johns Hopkins of Connecticut’s permit to purchase program found gun homicides fell by 40 percent after the statute went into effect in 1995.

Taking Weapons Away from Violent People

Individuals under domestic violence restraining orders are barred from buying guns by the federal background check system. The state of Connecticut goes even further and temporarily confiscates weapons from people subject to restraining orders of any kind. That law could be strengthened by a proposal to make those confiscations automatic 24 hours after the order is issued. (Currently such measures require a separate hearing.)

California, for its part, passed a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” law last fall that allows police or concerned relatives to petition for the temporary removal of firearms from someone behaving in a way that suggests they might be poised to harm themselves or others. Gun-friendly Indiana has a similar “dangerous persons” law. It allows either mental health professionals or the police to call for the removal of guns from the homes of individuals who are emotionally unstable or act aggressively.

Richard Bonnie is professor of law at the University of Virginia and (along with Swanson) a member of the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearms Policy. He believes a policy like Indiana’s would have provided the best chance for stopping Flanagan from committing gun violence. Bonnie tells The Trace that if Virginia had a dangerous persons law, the police who removed Flanagan from WDBJ after his firing could have confiscated any weapons he owned. “Behavior that leads to police being summoned and explicit threats — that might be the kind of behavior under which removal might be warranted,” says Bonnie.

So while it’s true that a background check alone wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy that played out live on television in Virginia, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done to prevent volatile people from having guns. The problem, Bonnie says, is that “states aren’t taking advantage of the policies out there.”

[Photo: Flickr user Deiby]