Editorial: Ayotte’s Preference; Senator Focuses on Mental Health

Many of her constituents remain incensed about Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s failure to support expanded background checks for gun purchases, but the New Hampshire Republican is standing her ground. She says she’s more interested in fixing the existing system, which she regards as seriously broken because very few people who attempt to illegally buy guns are prosecuted.

Why a screening system that’s worth making an effort to repair shouldn’t also be expanded to cover private sales at gun shows and online — gaping holes in need of filling if we’re interested in prosecuting those who attempt to buy guns when they are prohibited from doing so — Ayotte doesn’t say, although she is quick to point out that more comprehensive background checks wouldn’t have stopped the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. She does make clear, however, that she sees changes to mental health reporting as a promising avenue for preventing future mass shootings.

“(I) want to improve the nation’s mental health system so that those who are on the front lines can identify the warning signs of mental illness and help those in need get proper help,” she wrote in a commentary posted on seacoastonline.com.

The vehicle for accomplishing more effective mental health screening is legislation that Ayotte co-sponsored and was offered in the Senate as an alternative to the Manchin-Toomey proposal to expand background checks. The Protecting Communities and Preserving the Second Amendment Act — which might also be known as the Protecting Senators Who Have Explaining to Do in Their Home States Act — proposes to have states submit “relevant mental health records” to be entered into the federal background check system database and to withhold federal aid from those that fail to do so. That provision is in addition to proposals in the bill that would tighten the current background check system, make straw purchases of firearms a federal offense and several other measures.

It’s easy to imagine how a background check system that better incorporated information about people whose mental illness has been judged to pose a potential public safety threat would make sense. If there are problems with the current system that is preventing the effective dissemination of court orders and the like, they should be fixed. Even better, of course, would be a concerted effort to provide adequate health care to people whose mental illness might result in one of these tragedies.

But the limits of this approach are also clear. One problem is that only those people who have been determined by a court to be seriously mentally ill or who have been involuntarily committed to an institution are disqualified from owning guns. Several mass shooters — Jared Loughner in Tucson, Ariz., and James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., to name just two — had alarmed people about their instability and potential for violence, but were not prohibited from buying or stockpiling weapons, which they did.

But those are just the people who have raised concerns about their mental health. Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, not only failed to exhibit any signs that the bullying he had experienced at his high school was being processed into an irrational rage, but a mental health screening that his parents had insisted on when he was involved in an impulsive criminal act a year before the shooting yielded nothing. He was given a clean bill of mental health. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, had never received sustained mental health treatment as an adult.

The point is obvious: Better incorporation of mental health information into the background check system — and perhaps even figuring out how to better identify those who pose a genuine danger — will get us only so far. But that’s no reason why we shouldn’t make whatever improvements we can.

Here’s what we don’t understand: Why do the limitations of improved mental health screening give no pause to Ayotte and other advocates of the Protecting Communities bill, but very similar flaws stop them dead in their tracks when it comes to a wider application of background checks? The gun lobby, no doubt, could explain.