The special session Gov. Ralph Northam called to deal with gun control* is worthwhile – but it is only half a solution. As we have said previously on these pages, most notably following the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, better gun control laws are necessary but not by themselves a solution.
The second missing element is how to deal with severely mentally ill people who have shown violent tendencies. We need changed laws in this realm too, both to prevent tragedies and to keep those who commit them off the streets. Below is a brief examination of both gun and mental illness policy.
While “common sense gun measures” is more slogan than policy, it is clear that better gun laws are needed. However, any discussion of how to regulate guns should start with a few facts.
• The Small Arms Survey estimates that there are 393 million guns in private hands in the U.S., or 120 guns for every 100 residents.
• The vast majority of these owners are neither criminals nor violently mentally ill.
• Private ownership of guns is not going away in the United States.
Gun laws should make it more difficult for someone to commit a crime of passion, to illegally traffic in guns and to buy a gun if mentally ill. Waiting periods, better background checks that are required for every gun purchase and reasonable limits on the frequency of obtaining guns would all help if enforced.
Most importantly, no civilian in the United States should own a gun that fires 20, or even five, rounds a second. Those are military weapons, period. We are confident that George Washington, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin did not have private ownership of military assault rifles in mind when they signed the U.S. Constitution.
That one sentence in the Second Amendment, so simple and yet seemingly contradictory, continues to cause consternation more than 230 years later: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Reasonable people can read that sentence and believe it means the government can’t infringe at all on the right of the people to bear arms. Other reasonable people can read it and conclude it is only referring to militias and does not guarantee an absolute right to own any kind of gun. Hopefully, we can all agree that we have a significant problem with guns in this country, and laws must change and be enforced.
We think reform that keeps the violently mentally ill off the street is just as important – and that it takes far more political courage to espouse support for it. Locally, our delegation to the Virginia legislature, mayor and city council all have publicly supported tighter gun control, but to our knowledge, none have spoken publicly in support of laws that make it easier to involuntarily commit the severely mentally ill to institutions.
Virginia also needs a law that allows for a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill.” That way people like Kashif Bashir, who shot Alexandria Police Officer Peter LaBoy in the head in 2013 and then was declared competent and released last year, could spend the rest of their lives in an institution or behind bars. Bashir was quickly rearrested for arson, and, unbelievably, gun possession – but he never should have been freed.
The need for both involuntary commitment and a “guilty but mentally ill” designation was spotlighted just last week, when Pankaj Bhasin was declared not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2018 killing of Alexandria resident Bradford Jackson. Bhasin had been hospitalized in New Jersey for violent behavior just prior to the killing, but couldn’t be detained against his will and after a few days left the hospital where he was being treated.
Because Bhasin was declared not guilty by reason of insanity, it means that he, like Bashir, could walk free again in a few years. And the horrific murder of Jackson was committed not with a gun, but with a box cutter and dry erase marker.
So, yes, better gun laws are needed, but guns aren’t the whole problem.
*The special session began Tuesday, but was abruptly postponed until after the November election.