19 April 2007

Arma virumque: Commonwealth of Virginia

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In Virginia anyone older than 12 may own a rifle or shotgun. From age 18 onward it is legal to own a handgun. No permit is required, but without one the individual may purchase only one weapon a month. To carry a concealed gun a permit is required, but there is no requirement of training. Before the weapon is sold the name of the purchaser is checked against state and federal databases — convicted felons are ineligible as are mentally disturbed persons who have been treated in hospitals. There is no waiting period.

At a gun show even that check is waived. To buy a semi-automatic pistol or even a military-style assault weapon no name is required, hence no background check, and no record of sale.

Virginia's laws may seem lax, but the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence considers 32 other states even less rigorous. In 2001 about a third of U.S. households reported the possession of arms.

The student assailant at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University used two legally acquired weapons to kill 32 students and faculty on 16 April 2007: a Glock 9 mm pistol (above), and a Walther P22 semi-automatic pistol. He had been referred to an out-patient clinic to treat mental instability, so not reported to the database.

[sympatico / msn news, 18 April 2007, "Virginia massacre raises gun control questions"]

An executive order by the Governor of Virginia now makes mandatory reporting of mentally troubled patients treated in out-patient clinics, thus making them ineligible to purchase arms at stores. That is mere tinkering — 28 states do not even participate in the voluntary federal database. The New York Times refers to the "silent retreat" of legislators: "One hearing after Virginia Tech carefully focused on the need for mental health counselors on campus — certainly not saner gun controls."
[NYT, 2 May 2007]

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I received the following comment from a friend who is a psychiatrist and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (Canada):
The term "mentally unstable" is a vague, catch-all phrase. I often wonder what it really means and I imagine you do too. Does it fluctuate with time? Is anyone who sees a psychiatrist considered mentally unstable? Is someone with substance abuse considered mentally unstable? Does someone who has undergone a relationship breakup and harbours angry feelings qualify as unstable?
Another interesting point needs to be made. Psychiatrists feel from a careful review of evidence that they do know what risk factors exist for suicide and have some expertise (not complete) in predicting suicide risk. [On the other hand, by contrast] the American Psychiatric Association says time and time again that we do not have sufficient expertise to identify risk factors or ability to predict aggression, violence and homicide (even though this may sound counter-intuitive).


chumly said...

I wish the questions would stop being raised. It seems to cost lives. When will we get answers and stop the funerals?