This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2011 - If someone had been kicked out of college in Missouri and Illinois and told not to return without a clean bill of mental health, or had been rejected by the Army after failing a drug test, would he, or she, be allowed to buy a firearm?
The answer is: Probably yes, not because of any evaluation of his fitness but because that background is not the type likely to come to the attention of officials in charge of deciding whether someone should have a gun.
In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, and as more information about the background of alleged gunman Jared Loughner comes to light, much of the discussion has centered on two areas: the often overheated climate of political rhetoric and the fact that Loughner had bought his Glock 19 legally at a Tucson gun store at the end of November.
Whether the attacks on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others will lead to any changes in the law is another question.
As things stand now, spokesmen for both the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Illinois State Police say that unless someone's behavior landed them in a database that is routinely checked when someone seeks to buy a gun or get a permit for concealed carry, no red flag is likely to be raised.
A spokesman for Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley said that in every session, some modifications to the state's gun laws are proposed. But he doesn't expect anything to be introduced as a direct result of the shootings in Arizona.
That would be just fine for Zac Bauer of St. Louis, with the group Missouri Carry, which is part of the Missouri Sport Shooting Association and calls itself the "ultimate resource for concealed carry" in the state.
Asked whether he thought he would see any revisions in Missouri's gun laws, he replied quickly: "I would hope not."
He added that Arizona's law worked during the shootings last weekend because one of the people who helped subdue the gunman was lawfully carrying a firearm himself.
"That tells me that guns have a place in society among people who have passed a background check and have the training," Bauer said.
Anyone who has been diagnosed with a form of mental disability has to reveal that when applying for permission to carry a gun, he said, adding that that requirement won't stop someone who wants to carry a firearm anyway.
Criminals Find Guns
"These criminals are going to find a way to get a gun regardless," Bauer said. "They'll steal them, they'll make their own if they have to. What we need not to do is disarm law-abiding citizens who really need to have guns.
"Most of the shootings we see are in gun-free zones where people are disarmed -- churches, schools, amusement parks."
Tim Oliver of Learn to Carry, which provides information and classes on guns in central and southwest Missouri, said that Loughner would have been barred from receiving a concealed-carry permit in Missouri for several reasons, including his age, his arrest record and the fact that authorities had been summoned to his parents' home for disturbance calls.
"If the Arizona sheriff had done due his diligence and reported what we now know to the NICS (background check) system," Oliver wrote in an e-mail message, "the shooters would have been denied the ability to purchase the gun in the first place.
There is one change that Bauer would like to see in the outlook elected officials have toward guns.
"Our politicians and our law enforcement agencies should encourage people to go get a gun and get the training they need to safely carry it and safely use it," Bauer said. "Instead of it being a taboo, we should tell people we can be a safer society if we have more guns."
That's not the kind of change that a group of big-city mayors, led by Michael Bloomberg in New York, would like to see. After the Arizona killings, they renewed their call for more stringent controls on guns.
The group known as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which includes Francis Slay of St. Louis, said the killing of six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, plus the wounding of several others, "served as yet another reminder of the deadly gaps in the country's gun laws and enforcement practices."
After the shooting, Slay said on his Twitter account: "So, the gun and high capacity clip were purchased and carried legally. See any problem?''
In a statement issued by his office on Wednesday, the mayor added: "The Tucson shooter fell through the cracks of the law. The application of common sense to gun laws -- more shared information and better background checks -- might have prevented a tragedy or might prevent the next one."
A Broken System
Bloomberg appeared this week with several of his colleagues from the Northeast, along with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., new head of the House Homeland Security Committee. Bloomberg noted that "the law says that drug abusers can't buy guns, but even though Jared Loughner was rejected by the military for drug use and arrested on drug charges, he was able to pass a background check and buy a gun.
"It should be clear to everyone that the system is broken and it is time for our leaders in Washington to step up and fix it."
King said he planned to introduce legislation to ban anyone from knowingly carrying a gun within 1,000 feet of certain high-profile government officials.
The mayors' group also repeated its earlier call for three steps it said would strengthen control of illegal guns without the need for new legislation:
- Close the gaps in background checks, the kinds of situations that allowed Loughner to buy his weapon.
- Share information and connect the dots, to make sure that agencies have the data and the resources they need to make the right decisions.
- Approve the nomination of a leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has been without a director for four and a half years.
Closer to home, Missouri state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said she is concerned about the attitude toward firearms in the state Capitol, where she said some members carry guns on the House floor.
She is not opposed to weapons, she said. "I am from a rural area where hunting is very popular," Still said. "But people were gentlemen also."
That demeanor is not always present in Jefferson City, she said.
"I would hope that everyone would agree that people who are mentally ill need better care in this state," she said, "and we are taking a lot of cuts in mental health. People with mental illness should not be allowed to carry guns.
"I have not heard of any new action on guns being proposed, and I would be shocked if there is any action. Every year we have more legislation and more discussion about gun rights, but I think the idea is to show who is most pro-gun. That is the mindset. You have a mix of lots of testosterone and people who are wound very tight, too often people who are carrying guns."