- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2005


An Alabama man with a history of mental illness killed two police officers with a rifle he bought on Christmas Eve.

In suburban New York, a schizophrenic walked into a church during Mass and fatally shot a priest and a parishioner.

Neither of their names was in a database that licensed gun dealers must check before making sales — even though federal law prohibits the mentally ill from buying guns.

Most states have privacy laws barring such information from being shared with law enforcement. Legislation pending in Congress that has bipartisan support seeks to get more of the disqualifying records in the database.

Similar measures, opposed by some advocates for the mentally ill and gun-rights groups, did not pass Congress in 2002 and 2004.

The FBI, which maintains the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has not taken a position on the bill, but the bureau is blunt about what adding names to its database would do.

“The availability of this information will save lives,” the FBI said in a recent report.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, New York Democrat, says millions of records are either missing or incomplete. “The computer is only as good as the information you put in it,” she said.

In the Alabama case, police say Farron Barksdale ambushed the officers as they arrived at the home of his mother in Athens, Ala., on Jan. 2, 2004. Mr. Barksdale had been committed involuntarily to mental hospitals on at least two occasions, authorities said.

Facing the death penalty, he has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease and defect.

The shootings led Alabama lawmakers to share with the FBI the names of people who have been committed involuntarily to mental institutions. But just 20 other states provide NICS at least some names of people with serious mental illness, a disqualifier for gun purchases under federal law since 1968.

In New York, Peter Troy was twice admitted to mental hospitals but bought a .22-caliber rifle that he used in the shootings inside a Long Island church in March 2002. Troy is serving consecutive life terms for the killings.

As a result of the church shootings, Mrs. McCarthy and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, introduced legislation that year to close the gaps in the background check system. The bill would have required the states to give the FBI their records and provided $250 million in grants to cover their costs.

The bill passed the House without opposition but stalled in the Senate. In 2004, the measure again had the support of lawmakers who support gun rights, but it did not pass Congress.

Mrs. McCarthy, whose husband was among six persons fatally shot on a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993, has introduced the bill again this year, but it has not yet been taken up by a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Michael Faenza, president and chief executive of the National Mental Health Association, said forcing states to share information on the mentally ill would violate patient privacy and contribute to the stigma they face.

“It’s just not fair. On the one hand, we want there to be very limited access to guns,” Mr. Faenza said. “But here you’re singling out people because of a medical condition and denying them rights held by everyone else.”

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