In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when a student whom the court system had deemed mentally ill purchased guns and shot 49 people, 18 states changed their laws to prevent a repeat of the massacre. South Carolina was not one of those states.
On Feb. 4, 2013, Beaufort resident Alice Boland, who had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity after threatening to kill the president in 2005, took a semiautomatic pistol she had legally purchased in Walterboro and drove to Ashley Hall in downtown Charleston. As parents waited in line to pick up their children at the school's gate, Boland pointed the gun at staff members and pulled the trigger repeatedly. Since she had not chambered a round, nobody died that day. Michel Faliero, a mother with four daughters at Ashley Hall, started writing letters to elected officials soon afterward. "I think a lot of people are finding out for the first time how easy it is for people like Alice Boland to buy guns in South Carolina," Faliero said at a press conference last week.
The changes that 18 other states made shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre — the ones that South Carolina did not make — required the states to report mental health-related court data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database that lets firearms dealers quickly check whether a person is eligible to buy a weapon. Under the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which created the NICS, anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution" is not allowed to possess a firearm. Last week, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis introduced a bill to the state House Judiciary Committee that would require the state to report mental health adjudications from the state court system to NICS.
"We're not the first state to go through this. The same thing happened in Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings," Stavrinakis said at the press conference. "We should have probably done it at that time if not before, but thankfully, we didn't have the ultimate disaster here."
The Brady Act technically already requires states to report mental health data from the courts to NICS, but a 2011 study by the gun control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns shows that new laws like the one Stavrinakis has proposed are effective at increasing mental-health reporting to NICS. At the high end of the spectrum, California — which has a specific mental health reporting law — had submitted 279,589 mental health records to NICS as of October 31, 2011. Texas came in second with 174,802. South Carolina came in 33rd place with just 17 mental health cases in NICS. "Of the 10 states with the greatest number of mental health records in the NICS index, eight have enacted relevant laws or policies," the report found. "Among the 10 states with the least number of mental health records in the NICS index, eight have not taken these affirmative steps."
In a state-by-state analysis of problems with NICS reporting, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report mentions that "South Carolina apparently struggles with reporting the vast majority of mental health records to NICS because no automated system exists to collect records from mental health agencies and courts, and no law mandates record sharing with NICS." Importantly, it also mentioned that the state lacks the funding to create an infrastructure for reporting NICS data.
Stavrinakis' bill already has bipartisan support, including from House Speaker Bobby Harrell. As the bill stands, it requires SLED and the state Judicial Department to work with counties in compiling and maintaining a database of records to send to NICS. But if the law doesn't come with funding, it likely will not work. For example, Illinois passed a mandatory-reporting law in 2008, but the state's reporting figures did not increase significantly until the legislature approved funding to pay programmers at the Illinois State Police and the Department of Human Services.
The NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 allows the U.S. Attorney General to make grants to state governments to create new databases like the one mentioned in Stavrinakis' bill, but few states have qualified for the grants. In order to be eligible for a grant, a state must create a "relief from disabilities program" to allow people who are disqualified from buying guns the opportunity to prove they have been rehabilitated and ought to be allowed to buy guns again. Stavrinakis' bill includes a provision for that sort of program, a possible first step toward getting federal funds.
South Carolina isn't the only state that's failing to stop court-ordered psychiatric patients from buying guns. The Mayors Against Illegal Guns report found that 23 states and Washington D.C. had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to NICS. Ironically, the act that established NICS was named after the victim of a mentally ill gunman. Jim Brady, press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, was shot in the temple in 1981 by would-be assassin John Hinckley. Hinckley evidently thought killing the president would impress actress Jodie Foster. Brady was partially paralyzed for life, he became an ardent supporter of gun control measures, and the Brady Act was named in his honor.