By law, most people who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities are prohibited from purchasing or owning guns. But, in reality, an abysmal lack of coordination between state and federal authorities allows too many of them to get guns anyway.
Even before the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and President Barack Obama's proposals for gun control, the case of John F. Shick, who went on a shooting rampage last March at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland, illustrated some ways that the system fails.
Shick, who had been committed in Oregon and blocked by law from buying a weapon in that state, was able to easily buy two pistols, extra clips and ammunition from a private seller in a New Mexico parking lot. He used them a year later during the attack that killed one person and wounded several others.
If someone like Shick had been involuntarily committed in Pennsylvania and was trying to buy a gun, he or she probably could just as easily sidestep the rules.
Because, although licensed gun dealers are required to run a potential buyer's information through a national database, many states, including Pennsylvania, have not reported the appropriate mental health records to the National Instant Check System.
Pennsylvania State Police use their own system to screen potential gun buyers in the state, but the safeguards stop at the state line. Pennsylvania is one of the most populous states that does not submit its records to the NICS. That means there are 600,000 mental health files that would stop a gun buyer in Pennsylvania, but only one of them -- yes, one -- had been submitted to the NICS as of October.
There's a two-word answer for why that's the case: red tape.
The state police sought clarification from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on whether those who should be barred from buying guns should include individuals who have been subject to the most common type of involuntary commitment in the state -- a so-called 302 commitment, which allows people to be held for 120 hours if they seem to be a danger to themselves or others.
State police have been waiting for an answer since June 2011, but commissioner Frank Noonan told the Post-Gazette's Moriah Balingit that, even though they still haven't received a definitive response, state police are preparing to start transmitting the records as soon as this week.
Pennsylvania's situation is hardly unique. According to a study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 19 states have submitted fewer than 100 records as of October and Rhode Island had not submitted any.
The lack of uniform reporting is just one roadblock to effective law enforcement. Medical records exist in many forms, which makes it difficult for state agencies to collect what is necessary to make appropriate reports. Many states don't mandate background checks when sales occur between individuals. Under federal law, private sellers don't have to conduct background checks either.
Enforcement of existing laws is not enough to tackle the nation's gun violence epidemic, but it should be a start, in conjunction with Mr. Obama's sweeping reforms. People who should be barred from owning guns should not have such an easy time getting around background checks already on the books.