BOB CONFER: NYS considers mental health evaluations for gun purchases

Bob Confer

When assessing mass shootings, especially those that have decimated schools, churches and public gatherings, people on both sides of the gun debate agree that serious mental issues should preclude someone from having access to firearms. In most of the high-profile incidents there existed a well-defined history of mental illness and troubling actions.

Tools exist to ensure such individuals shouldn’t get their hands on guns. Most states have licensing procedures with handguns, there are waiting periods and we have background checks led by the FBI’s system.

But, those tools aren’t always used to the best of their abilities and potential. The federal system has allowed troubled souls to purchase firearms because of two issues: inadequacy of input and inadequacy of the FBI.

A database is only as good as the data it contains. The amount of information entered is a fraction of what it should be. Federal agencies, the military, states, courts, local law enforcement, tribes and hospitals have to do a better job of sharing information within the system.

A database is also only as good as its usage. The FBI has in recent years been unprepared or overburdened and has let many background checks get a pass despite not actually being completed. For example, in 2018 there were 8.2 million checks but more than 200,000 were never fully realized.

There needs to be a concerted effort to update and transmit proper records. The FBI identified its flaws in a 2015 internal report but has hardly moved on them. Federal legislation and funding have been offered to fix the broken state/local reporting system but a majority of states remain weak in their policies and procedures and most don’t have penalties for failing to report findings.

So, the system exists, and it could be a good one, but state and federal officials have to flesh it out and add meat to the skeleton.

That should be the focus of lawmakers but here, in New York, it’s not.

Some want to reinvent the wheel — badly, at that — and develop an elaborate, intrusive and unconstitutional system that, rather than utilizing known records about troubled souls, would force all gun buyers into having a mental health evaluation before completing a sale.

Unlike the pistol permit, which is your universal and allegedly lifelong ticket to buy because you went through one of the most stringent licensing processes in the nation, this bill would require a permit of sorts, done by a mental health check-up, not just once but prior to every purchase. Suppose you were new to the shooting sports and over the course of a year you bought a .22, a shotgun and a larger-caliber rifle. You would have to see a psychologist every time.

To make this work, the state would require the Commissioner of Mental Health to establish a process for identifying which mental health professionals can complete the certifications, how it’s done and what assessments can deny a purchase.

That leads to a list of questions and concerns.

What exactly will be considered a potentially deadly mental illness? The existing federal background checks identify what is a risk. Will the state’s assessment mirror that or, like this bill, will it be overkill and blacklist otherwise harmless illnesses — and even world views — that could be deemed unhealthy in bureaucrats’ eyes?

Will first responders and military be denied their rights? Many firefighters, EMTs, police and active and retired armed forces suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because they’ve seen and/or experienced tragedies in volume that most of us never will even once in our lives. Some health professionals consider PTSD a gateway to other mental illnesses and an ailment that clouds judgment. It’s not a stretch to believe that it could land many on the watch list.

How else will the findings be used? Once the state knows your mental status — or what someone perceives it to be — will the information be shared with other agencies at the state and local level? Could the assumption of you being a threat, even if you’re not, be used against you if an issue went before family court or you went to see your kid at school?

Are there enough psychologists? Millions of guns are sold and transferred in New York every year. This past December alone nearly 33,000 federal background checks for weapons purchases were completed in the Empire State. There are nowhere near enough mental health professionals to conduct evaluations for every sale, let alone every gun owner on an individual basis. Look at the phone book to get a feel for that: Beyond government agencies there are few psychologists out there; both the Niagara Falls and Lockport phone books showed only two.

Could a psychologist be held liable? My wife has a doctorate in psychology. She tells me most sociopaths will lie and put up fronts if interviewed. If that happens and a doctor gives the stamp of approval, could he or she be held liable if someone passes the test and commits mass murder? You’re guaranteed lawyers will go that route.

Will this drive law-abiding citizens away from exercising their rights? This adds significant hassle and cost (at least $100 a session with a psychologist) to a simple purchase and assumes we are all guilty until proven innocent. This will discourage good people from buying firearms and continue to encourage bad people to get them in other ways.

Obviously, this bill is a threat to not only the Second Amendment but to other rights as well. If this proposal concerns you — it should — then reach out to your state representatives. The Senate bill is S07065 and the Assembly bill is A01589. The latter has a number of cosponsors, some of them heavy hitters like assistant Assembly Speaker Felix Ortiz, so it’s not as if support for it is lacking in Albany. We just have to make sure there’s more against it.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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