Lindsey Graham’s Gun-Related Bill Wants to Track the Mentally Ill — but Who Counts?

As a Senate bill designed to reinstitute the expired ban on assault weapons moves toward a full vote, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is fighting a rearguard action on gun restrictions for the mentally ill. The issue is one that Republicans have been pushing since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., when mentally ill shooter Adam Lanza gunned down 28 people.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (Photo Credit: AP)

Fox News reports:

A proposal on the issue was introduced this month by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who on Thursday again expressed his interest in getting the measure passed.

“I believe that the best way to interrupt the shooter is to have a mental health system that actually records and enters into the database people who should not be able to buy a gun,” Graham said.[…]

Graham’s proposal would require that people found mentally incompetent be added to the National Instant Criminal Background System – the database for all new gun sales.

Graham and his allies see restrictions on assault weapons as overly broad, and also an attack on what amounts to an artificial category of weapons. However, many advocates for the rights of the mentally ill might reasonably worry about how broad the ban on gun ownership would be in the case of Graham’s bill. Just who counts as mentally ill?

The answer is that the bill defers to the court system to make the ultimate determination, though it does specify that only people found to be a danger to themselves or others, or incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty by reason of mental insanity, or in need of commitment to a psychiatric hospital, or in need of mandatory outpatient treatment, would qualify to be banned from owning guns.

However, there is no sign that the bill deals with a wider issue in the criminal justice system whereby severely mentally ill people commit themselves voluntarily so as to avoid mandatory court commitment, and the various restrictions that entails. Nor is it clear that such a loophole could be closed without concerns from privacy advocates.

Graham’s bill joins a fleet of gun control proposals in the Senate, most of which face long odds of passing the full body, given the likelihood of a Republican filibuster  for most of them. However, given the bipartisan support that Graham has been able to rack up, his idea may be the exception.