- - Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Given a choice between doing something and doing nothing, something usually wins, even when something is the wrong thing to do. In addition to moving himself to tears in recalling tragic shootings during his presidency, Barack Obama has taken wrong steps to prevent new ones with his executive order changing background checks for gun purchasers.

There’s a lesson in the imposition of the government’s mysterious no-fly list, an exercise in bureaucratic whimsy and score-settling that frequently kept innocent passengers off the airplane. Innocent would-be gun owners could be swept up in the president’s rush to regulate, and they would find themselves on a federal “no-buy list,” the Second Amendment be damned.

No one wants kooks and crazies with guns, and the president’s proposal to spend $500 million for mental health services is welcome. It’s long overdue. But it comes with a catch. The president’s executive order permits the Department of Health and Human Services to flout privacy rules and refer mental health issues directly to the U.S. National Instant Criminal Background Check System. A patient who is a little too honest in admitting to his doctor that his worldly cares are getting the better of him could be reported to his doctor, causing him to flunk the background check permitting him to buy a gun.

Until now, medical privacy rules prevented medical disclosures even to a husband or wife without the patient’s approval. Now sensitive psychological records could wind up in a federal database available to anyone with the password.

Tens of millions of Americans suffer mental disorders each year, according to the National Institutes of Health, with depression the most common form. About half seek treatment and only a small percentage of those present a threat to anyone. Fear of exposure could discourage someone with depression to seek help, says former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

The federal no-fly list is thus an important caution. Though meant to provide airline clerks with a screening tool to stop suspected evildoers in the hysteria after Sept. 11, the no-fly list swept up the likes of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, singer Cat Stevens, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, like Mr. Kennedy a Democrat, and even an 18-month-old baby whose politics were unknown. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued on behalf of bewildered Americans trying to puzzle out the secret process that denied them their freedom to fly. Nevertheless, after the San Bernardino shooting in December, congressional Democrats attempted to enact a law that could have denied anyone on the list the right to buy a gun.

The idea of punishing someone because he might one day misbehave is not far-fetched. The British government is at work now on how to do just that. Ars Technica, a high-tech blog, reports that authorities have created a database called Facewatch, connected to face-recognition software and to thousands of surveillance cameras in London. Ten-thousand businesses have online access to the database. Store security officers can tag individuals deemed suspicious for scrutiny and expel them from the premises without explaining why.

Preventing the mentally ill from acquiring guns is a good thing to do. But Mr. Obama would punish someone with full mental faculties for trying to exercise his Second Amendment rights. That would actually be something for Mr. Obama to cry over.

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