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Thoughts on the Arizona gunman and his gun

Brian Cook, press secretary to Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, posted this on his Facebook page earlier today, saying we should all take Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ words to heart; I thought it deserved re-posting here:

Agreed. But…

From all the media reports I’ve seen, this shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is mentally ill. I do believe the violent incivility in our national discourse could have influenced him, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a clear cause and effect; this guy was clearly sick, and might well have found his inspiration to kill elsewhere. While I believe we need to tone down the rhetoric, I don’t think we can predict how what we say will guide the already unbalanced.

What I’m much more interested in is how someone who was clearly so mentally ill managed to go out and buy a handgun. The New York Times reports:

Most of the reports, according to Paul Schwalbach, a college spokesman, were about how Mr. Loughner was “acting out” in disruptive or inappropriate ways. By last fall, officials at the college had learned about an Internet video that Mr. Loughner had prepared citing Pima College and claiming that it was in some way illegal or unconstitutional.

The college had its lawyers review the video and decided at that point to take action, drafting a letter suspending Mr. Loughner, which was delivered to his parents’ home in northwest Tucson by two police officers on Sept. 29.

At a meeting in early October at the college’s northwest campus, where he attended classes, Mr. Loughner said he would withdraw. Three days later, the college sent him a letter telling him that if he wanted to return, he would need to undergo a mental health evaluation. “After this event, there was no further college contact with Loughner,” the college said in a statement.

And, according to another Times article, about two months after police had to convey the message that this apparently unbalanced individual was no longer welcome at a public college:

A few days after Thanksgiving last year, Mr. Loughner turned up at the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson and bought a Glock semiautomatic gun, with serial number PWL 699.

Is it good public policy to let potentially violent, mentally ill people who’ve been brought to the police’s attention go buy guns? Also, as NPR reports, Arizona has some of the nation’s most lenient gun laws, so Loughner needed no additional permit to carry it concealed (not that a law would’ve stopped a mentally ill person bent on murder from doing so anyway).

I’m sure some commenters will say it would’ve infringed upon Loughner’s constitutional rights to deny him a handgun unless he’d already been committed or arrested, and perhaps that’s true. But I wonder whether, if his mental state already had necessitated police conveying him a message barring him from a public institution, perhaps there should be a legal mechanism in place to keep guns out of his hands. Should a mentally ill person’s Second Amendment rights outweigh the Creator-bestowed, unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness stolen from 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green and his other victims? Apparently our nation is OK with waging war to pre-empt terrorists’ violent attacks upon our populace; why not do all we can to minimize threats both foreign AND domestic?

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.