Graham: Criminally mentally ill 'should not be able to' buy guns

By Sam

WASHINGTON (WCIV) - Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Begich (D-AK) introduced legislation Wednesday afternoon aimed at preventing gun violence through stronger background check prosecutions.

"There are over 14,000 people in South Carolina who've been adjudicated a danger to themselves and others by a court, not in the system. That's what we're trying to fix," Graham said.

The bill, dubbed the NICS Reporting Improvement Act of 2013, clarifies when a person loses his or her rights to purchase or own firearms based on mental illness.

Graham and Begich, along with Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Mark Pryor (D-AR), introduced the bill that targets people who have been determined by the courts to have met a series of criteria, including being a danger to themselves, being found guilty but mentally ill in a criminal court, found not guilty by reason of insanity, being found incompetent to stand trial, and requiring involuntary treatment at or commitment to a psychiatric hospital.

"The Alice Boland case is 'Exhibit A' of a broken background check system," said Graham. "An individual who pleads 'Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity' should not be able to pass a federal background check and legally purchase a gun. As astonishing as it sounds, that actually happened. Our bill addresses the Boland case, and other similar instances, to ensure that those who have been declared an imminent danger to themselves or others aren't legally able to obtain a firearm. I would expect overwhelming bipartisan support for our legislation."

The Senators also noted the legislation contains provisions to ensure Second Amendment rights are returned to individuals after they have recovered from their mental illness.

"I'm pleased that we have been able to bring together unlikely allies from outside the building and produce a common-sense, bipartisan bill that will help keep our communities safe while protecting our Second Amendment rights," Begich said. "I have worked side by side with both the NRA and the mental health community to ensure that this bill will help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people without stigmatizing the mentally ill or taking away individual rights. I hope today's announcement serves as a reminder that if we roll up our sleeves and work together, we can still get things done around here."

"We must strengthen the reporting process of mental health records so that those who should not have access to guns are barred from purchasing them," Flake said. "Ensuring that more of these records are integrated into NICS will significantly improve the background check process."

Graham emphasized the legislation only would report legal records.

"What we're trying to do is capture court decisions, when courts have rendered verdicts," he said.

The National Rifle Association has been vocal in its support of legislation that focuses on mental health.

The legislation does not apply to persons in a mental institution for observation or those who voluntarily admit themselves to a psychiatric hospital.

In a Feb. 15 press conference, Graham said that the existing gun laws are not working because people are not being prosecuted. He pointed to the case of 28-year-old Alice Boland, a Beaufort woman accused of trying to repeatedly fire a loaded handgun at school administrators in downtown Charleston.

Boland had purchased the handgun three days prior -- legally -- from a gun shop in Walterboro.

However, a dig into Boland's past shows she had been charged with threatening the life of the president and members of Congress in 2005.

"Give me a gun, I am going to kill you," she reportedly told airport police. "I am going to kill President Bush with a gun. Just give me a gun; I am going to come back and shoot you all, asshole. I am going to find a gun and kill you all."

She later pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and the charges were dropped against her.

The regional director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said there was "nothing illegal" about Boland's purchase.

"This to me is an outrage and it could have resulted in tragedy," Graham said. "I'm just astonished. Is he wrong?"

Graham said his legislation was designed to prevent "people like Alice Boland" from getting a gun.

Graham said in the press conference last month that 80,000 people failed a background check last year and only 44 of them were prosecuted. He said with so few prosecutions happening, the law is no longer a deterrent to criminals.

"My advice to Congress is this: Instead of expanding the background check, let's fund a way to stop a person who threatens the president from getting a gun," he said. "Let's find a way to make sure Alice Boland will never get a gun."


Lawmakers say problem is lack of reporting

But that's where the problem starts in South Carolina, according to dozens of lawmakers who have signed on to several bills in the state's Legislature.

South Carolina currently lacks any sort of reporting mechanism for people who should not be allowed to purchase or own firearms.

According to a report filed by a national coalition of mayor, of which Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is a member, says millions of records of the mentally ill and people with drug addictions are missing from the federal database because of insufficient reporting by state agencies.

South Carolina is included in the list of states that are not regularly reporting to the federal database. As of October 2011, the state had sent only 17 mental health records to the NICS, the report found.

The report places blame on South Carolina's state legislature for making no effort to pass a new law requiring record submission. A White House official said last month that South Carolina opted out of reporting mental health issues. They added it was a state issue.

But that may be changing after a group of parents from Ashley Hall School -- where Alice Boland allegedly tried to fire her handgun -- sent a letter to a dozen lawmakers, including Riley, Graham, and a collection of state lawmakers.

A bill filed Feb. 19 in the state House that started with the support of the Attorney General and three representatives now has the support of more than 40 state politicians.

The so-called Boland Bill was in direct response to the Alice Boland incident and aims to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Legislators are trying to fast track the bill.

Subcommittee meetings are slated for March 20.

The bill promises to report people with histories of violent crime and those adjudicated mentally incompetent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System -- the NICS. Before that can be done, the State Law Enforcement Division will have create a database and send that information to NICS.

Carrying out these requirements could come with a heavy cost. Former state Attorney General Charlie Condon says it's money well spent but counties and clerks of court may struggle the most with this new process of reporting.

"There's going to be a cost at some point; there's going to be a price tag put on this. I suspect the price tag on the face of it is maybe going to surprise some people," Condon said.

Then if the bill winds up on the governor's desk, Gov. Nikki Haley can veto it. She has said in recent weeks that she was not ready to make a change to the laws that led to Alice Boland's gun purchase.

Yet she may face political pressure from the entirety of Gervais Street. State senators have filed their own Boland Bill that was discussed Wednesday morning in a Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting.


{}A mental health issue

The governor has said several times that creating new gun laws -- including a background reporting law -- would do little to avert gun violence. Instead, she has said, the focus needs to be on bolstering mental health assistance for people in need.

Much of Boland's history of mental illness has been chronicled back to 2002.

Records show that she attended the College of Charleston in the fall of 2002, but took a leave of absence after a lawsuit alleges she was the victim of a string of harassing encounters with students and staff at the school.

According to one of the lawsuits, Boland's experiences in a residence hall at CofC included "acts of bigotry" by residence hall administrators because of Alice Boland's "thick dark hair, heavy eye brows and pale skin."

Alice Boland's time at CofC appeared to come to a head in November 2002 when the suit alleged she was led out of the residence hall in handcuffs by Public Safety officers and taken to Charleston Memorial Hospital because she was threatening to hurt herself "without any documentation that she did any acts of harm to herself either with weapons or any kind of substance abuse."

Shortly after, she was placed in Medical University Hospital for 21 days.

Along with the College of Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina, G. Werber Bryan Psychiatric Hospital and the state of South Carolina were also named as defendants in the suit.

A second lawsuit filed about the same time against Dr. J. Wiley Dickerson, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, the state Department of Social Services, the state Department of Mental Health and the state of South Carolina claims Dickerson overmedicated Alice Boland on Zyprexa, a drug used to treat bipolar disorder of schizophrenia.

The suit claims that Dickerson provided information to the College of Charleston that led to Alice Boland's arrest. According to the lawsuit, Alice Boland was prescribed Haldol and Abilify, which left her in a catatonic state for six months.

Records are unclear of when exactly Alice Boland was discharged from the hospital in 2004, but nearly a year later, she ended up in the Montreal airport, where she became agitated and verbally abusive, according to court documents.

Haley's office has not commented on the Boland case, but has pointed out several times that during her administration, the governor has managed to increase funding for the state's mental health department every year.


{}Graham faces opposition -- from police

The groundswell of support for bills filed in South Carolina's Legislature are lacking with Graham's bill. He's already faced harsh criticism from an unlikely source -- a police chief -- for calling for police to focus more on prosecutions of people who fail background checks.

During a hearing on Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed assault weapons ban that would also include a ban on high-capacity magazines, the debate between the two men became so heated, Feinstein had to admonish the crowd and urge Graham and the police chief to be civil.

"When almost 80,000 people fail a background check and 44 people are prosecuted, what kind of deterrent is that?" Graham asked Milwaukee, Wisc., Police Chief Edward Flynn.

Graham used the same figure when he announced his still-unfiled bill and brought to national exposure the case of Alice Boland.

"If it's such an important issue, why are we not prosecuting people who fail background checks?" Graham asked.

Flynn fired back, saying the number of prosecutions did not matter.

"I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally - that's what a background check does," he told Graham.

Graham said he wanted the existing laws to work properly before more laws were added. He used himself as an example, saying he owned an AR-15, the weapon officials in Newtown, Conn., said was used in an elementary school shooting there.

"The best way to prevent crazy people, mentally unstable people, from getting a weapon is to identify them somehow before they try to murder," he said.

Flynn argued that Feinstein's bill was not stripping away Second Amendment rights. Instead, he said, this was a commerce issues because a lot of people make a lot of money off of high-powered and automatic weapons and ammunition for high-capacity magazines.

1994's assault weapons ban expired in 2004 when Congress failed to renew it. A string of deadly mass shootings across the country have renewed calls for another ban to be implemented after officials at those shootings classified the firearms used in those attacks as assault weapons.


Stacy Jacobson and Eric Egan contributed to this report.

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