Debrief: Do gun background check databases work?

Jan 17, 2013

Rhode Island Public Radio health care reporter joined afternoon host Dave Fallon in the studio to talk about what public health experts and legal scholars have to say about mental health records and the gun background check database. A transcript follows. You can listen to our feature story on Rhode Island's lack of participation in the National Instant Criminal Background Check, or NICS, database here.

Dave Fallon: And Rhode Island Public Radio’s health care reporter Kristin Gourlay joins us now in the studio to talk more about the federal gun background check database, or NICS. Kristin, you’ve been investigating not only the legal and policy issues surrounding these background checks, but also the public health issues. What do public health researchers think about a background check database that includes mental health records?

Kristin Gourlay: Well, they’re mixed. I’ve studied some of the literature about this, from public health researchers and legal scholars alike, from folks representing places like the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research. Some say, well, we have this database. We might as well make it as complete as we can so it can at least be part of the solution to what they all agree is a huge problem – which is too much gun violence. But Lawrence Gostin, who heads the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown university, takes kind of a different view.  Here’s what he has to say.

“If you really want to make the big gains in gun safety, then it wouldn’t be by focusing on the person, it would be focusing on the availability of the means.”

DF: In other words… don’t try to regulate dangerous people, regulate guns? Why wouldn’t you do both?

KG: You can. But Gostin says the latter – regulating guns – would be much more effective. It’s because he says mental health diagnoses aren’t always so black and white. And they’re sometimes temporary. He says that you’re also likely to cast a larger net than necessary, because most people with mental illness aren’t dangerous. In fact, he says there’s a huge amount of data to show that the only really good predictor of whether someone’s going to get violent is whether they’ve been violent in the past. Plus, there are still too many other ways for people to get a hold of guns without a background check.

DF: Although President Obama has recently proposed making background checks universal – meaning you’d have to go through them whether you buy from a Wal-Mart or at a gun show. But what does Gostin think we should do to keep guns out of the hands of people who might use them to commit crimes? Just scrap the database?

KG: He thinks there should be a database for everyone who’s bought a gun, not just people in certain categories, like those with mental illness. And that we should limit the number of guns people can buy. But there are lots of other measures policy and health researchers think we could take, and it’ll be interesting to watch their reactions to the President’s recent proposals to curb gun violence.

DF: You mention health researchers. How is this a health issue? There are the obvious issues of violence and the number of people killed by guns every year. But what else?

KG: There’s some new research coming out that suggests violence behaves like a disease, or an epidemic. It shares characteristics with diseases in that it spreads from a certain point at a measurable rate. But let’s hear from professor Lawrence Gostin again – I think he puts it really well.

“Firearms are a major public health problem, a huge public health problem. I mean, it’s a problem that is the same as automobile safety, tobacco control. It basically is a something that takes a consistently large number of lives in the tens of thousands every year invariably."

KG: Gostin says automobile safety efforts are a great example of how public policy helped mitigate a public health problem. Too many people were dying in car accidents, and we did the research to figure out why. It was partly people not wearing seatbelts, partly unsafe cars. We tackled those things, not how people drive or who gets to drive, necessarily. Gostin says the same thing needs to happen with guns.

DF: Kristin, what’s next for Rhode Island in terms of regulating guns or participating in the national background check database, or NICS?

KG: All states are waiting on more guidance from the president now. But I believe conversations are already starting to take place in Rhode Island among state officials to try to figure out how we might start participating in NICS. In the meantime, everything is status quo.

DF: Thank you, Kristin. Kristin Gourlay is Rhode Island Public Radio’s health care reporter.

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