Virginia Tech mass murderer Seung-Hui Cho was mentally deranged. But he had no problem buying his two weapons of mass destruction from a Roanoke, VA gun dealer and the combination of a Green Bay, WI web site and Blacksburg, VA pawnbroker. This got me thinking that there ought to be a law against selling guns to people in his mental condition.
It turns out there is. In this case, the law was simply not enforced. That's Newsweek's revelation. It found that the same 1968 federal gun law that blocks convicted criminals from buying firearms (passed after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy) also prohibits gun purchases by those who have a history of mental illness.
On Cho's gun application -- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Form 4473 -- he was asked: "Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective or ... committed to a mental institution?" Cho answered "no."
Of course this was a lie. After complaints to Virginia Tech campus police made by two female schoolmates and calls from friends saying he was suicidal, Cho was voluntarily but briefly admitted to Carilion Saint Albans, where a local psychiatric hospital doctor reported that Cho was "depressed" but "denies suicidal ideations" and did not "acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder."
I'm no psychiatrist but I think the anonymous one at Carilion Saint Albans should lose his license. Meanwhile, for the purposes of the 1968 law, the definition of "mentally defective" applies to anybody who has been determined by a "court, board, commission or other lawful authority" to have been a "danger to himself or others." By that standard, Cho got his gun illegally.
Why wasn't the law enforced? The gun dealer did not know about Cho's mental defect because it wasn't recorded in the police database the dealer is required to check before selling the gun. This made me think that there ought to be an electronic link between mental health records and the police databases that get checked in the gun application process. Such a link might have stopped Cho from getting his guns.
Fortunately, this is not an original idea. But the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) relies on states to submit mental health records. Surprisingly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is fine with this. Newsweek's anonymous NRA source said it has "no problem as long as one is adjudicated mentally incompetent [in denying gun purchases] and we have no problem with mental health records being part of the NICS."
If this quote accurately reflects the NRA's position, it's a good thing because no change in gun laws can be made in the U.S. without NRA support. What's the source of the NRA's power? Campaign money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-gun lobbyists contributed $962,525 to candidates in last November's midterm elections, roughly 20 times the $49,090 spent by groups advocating gun control. For Republican candidates the pro-gun to gun-control contributions were in a 166:1 ratio; for Democrats the ratio was 3:1.
And make no mistake -- were it not for the political power of the NRA and the economic interests of its members -- it might be much harder for people like Cho to get guns. After all Cho's two guns -- the Glock 19 and the Walther P-22 handgun were made by Glock GmBH, a privately held Austrian company with 60% of the U.S. police department market and Walther GmBH, a German manufacturer, whose U.S. subsidiary Walther America, distributes guns in the U.S. through a joint venture with Smith & Wesson Holding (NASDAQ: SWHC), respectively. In addition, last month Cho bought gun clips on eBay Inc. (NASDAQ: EBAY) and 200 bullets from a nearby store owned by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE: WMT).
Moreover, the way Cho purchased his guns covered a broader set of economic interests. He purchased his Glock 19 at a Roanoke, VA Firearms store whose owner, John Markell, said: "It was a very unremarkable sale. He was a nice, clean-cut college kid."
Meanwhile, Cho bought his Walther 22 online from a Green Bay, WI dealer. But under Virginia law, the gun had to be sent to a licensed firearm dealer in Virginia. That store was then required to perform a background check before allowing the buyer to pick up the weapon. In Cho's case, the store was a Blacksburg, VA pawn shop, JND Pawnbrokers.
For both gun purchases, it may be that the retailers involved were not aware of Cho's mental condition. Could it be that the problem is with the medical community? The NRA source says, "The problem is not with the gun community. The problem is with the medical community" that has traditionally opposed making such records available on privacy grounds."
If this is true, I think it's worth giving up a bit of mental health records privacy to keep guns out of the hands of mass murdering wackos. On the other hand, if the NRA is using the medical community as a PR shield, I think politicians should muster the courage to put the public interest ahead of the NRA's.
What do you think?
Peter Cohan is President of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, a management consulting and venture capital firm. He also teaches management at Babson College and edits The Cohan Letter. He has no financial interest in eBay, Smith & Wesson, or Wal-Mart.