Let’s say your mental landscape is similar to that of Colby Sue Weathers back in 2012: suicidal, homicidal, paranoid, schizophrenic. Oh, and with a drug and alcohol problem.
You are too disabled by mental illness — schizophrenia was diagnosed in 2011 — and recurring hospitalizations to work. You are not great about maintaining your psychotropic drug regimen, which you administer inconsistently and sometimes to woozy excess. And you have an occasional hankering, occasionally satisfied, to consume a fifth of liquor. In other words, your life is utterly out of control.
One trouble you probably don’t have — provided you live in the United States — is gaining access to a lethal firearm. Thanks in part to the advocacy of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, and in part to the commitment of elected representatives in Congress and statehouses, you can buy a gun and kill someone, yourself included, almost entirely free of obstacles. In many cases, you can do so completely legally. Because in practice, the U.S. gun market generally does not discriminate against a wide array of pre-existing conditions, including madness.
There are no thorough background checks to determine whether you are mentally unhinged and a danger to yourself or others. No waiting periods to give the evil voices echoing inside your head time to decamp. No opportunities for family or friends or public safety officials to intervene in the firearm transaction. No meaningful commercial distinctions made between a skilled hunter eager for the approach of deer season and a dangerous psychotic with visions of blood.
Janet Delana filed a negligence suit this month against Odessa Gun & Pawn shop in Odessa, Mo. In May 2012, Odessa sold Ms. Delana’s daughter — Colby Sue Weathers — a Hi-Point .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol. According to the suit, Ms. Weathers, who was 38 at the time, had intended to shoot herself. She sat with the gun for an hour or so before abandoning her goal and informing her parents, who promptly got rid of the gun.
A few weeks later, in late June, the voices in Ms. Weathers’s head told her to buy another gun and kill herself. Having observed her daughter’s agitation, Ms. Delana said she called Odessa Gun & Pawn on June 25 and alerted an employee to her daughter’s chronic mental illness and current suicidal state. She asked that the shop refrain from selling Ms. Weathers a gun. Two days later, Ms. Weathers turned up at Odessa and bought another Hi-Point pistol. Ms. Weathers drove home, loaded two bullets and shot her father. “Dad is dead,” she texted her mother. He was.
The lawsuit, which was filed by lawyers for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, is “an uphill challenge,” said UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of the excellent book, “Gun Fight,” via email. “Under the nation’s gun laws, the dealer was allowed to sell to someone without a criminal or mental illness record. It’s usually hard to pin responsibility for someone’s bad acts on a commercial establishment that merely supplied the equipment.”
Supplying the equipment is what the nation’s 140,000 federally licensed firearms dealers do for a living. And there is absolutely nothing in federal law requiring them to sell their wares in a manner that is socially responsible, discerning or protective of human life. Kevin Jamison, the lawyer for Odessa, told me, “The store went through all the proper legal procedures.”
And there you have the nub of the problem. The lawsuit doesn’t even claim that Odessa violated the law. Presumably, Ms. Weathers passed an instant background check before killing her father.
A 2011 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was co-founded by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg, revealed that almost half the states had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal background check database. Cases of substance abuse were also hugely underreported. And merely being crazy isn’t sufficient for inclusion in the database, anyway. You have to be certified crazy. As the Los Angeles Times reported in September after a mass shooting at Washington’s Naval Yard, “Most mentally ill people — including Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who apparently showed signs of psychosis — never get treatment or aren’t recognized as being in crisis.”
So for a suicidal, homicidal, paranoid schizophrenic with drug and alcohol problems to get a gun under U.S. federal laws, she basically has to do just one thing: ask.
Francis Wilkinson writes for Bloomberg View.