About 3%-5% of all violence in the United States is perpetrated by individuals with mental illness. But the risk of violence is much higher with “rampage killers,” those who go into schools, malls, and other public places and shoot. About 50% have a history of mental illness and 8% have been committed. Legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives is a good idea if even one life is saved. The bill, H.R. 2640 (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Amendments Act of 2007), would require the states to update the NICS with the names and other identifying information of people committed to mental institutions so that they could not buy firearms.
We still have no data to show that this approach would be effective. Guns are widely available from legal and illegal sources in the United States. Federal purchase restrictions only apply to purchases from a dealer. They do not affect those who already own guns, obtain a gun from another person, or buy one at a gun show. If even a single life could be saved by stopping gun purchase by mentally ill patients, why not do it? Because the costs would vastly outweigh a small likelihood of benefit. The financial impact will be enormous. The federal bill offers states $1 billion to participate in a national database. Think of what else we could do with that money to combat gun violence.