Tougher mental health screening urged for gun buyers in aftermath of Newtown, Conn., tragedy

Push urged by law enforcers and gun advocates

CINCINNATI - Debbie Von Holle fired off round after round from a revolver Sunday as she took target practice at Point Blank Range & Gun Shop in Blue Ash.

Wearing ear and eye protection, the Hyde Park resident worked on the accuracy of her shots aimed at a paper target 30 feet away.

"Personal protection is number one for me," she said.  "Home Protection, personal protection and also recreation.  It's great fun."

Von Holle knows the gun control debate will be renewed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, but said she things current laws are stringent enough.

"I believe in my Second Amendment rights," she said.  "I just feel that overall, citizens in general are responsible gun owners."

Differing views

That's not the viewpoint, however, of the Rev. Petersen Mingo of the Christ Temple Full Gospel Baptist Church in Evanston.  He's worked extensively on gun violence prevention with CIRV, the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence.

"Parents who were planning on opening and closing presents are now opening and closing graves," he said.  "It's a tragedy when you think that if there were tighter gun control laws, maybe some of these things wouldn't be happening."

Point Blank Owner Tom Willingham said he believes the system isn't broken as far as the distribution and purchase of guns is concerned.

"It should be put in the hands of people," he said.  "If they want to vote on it, they can, but keep politics out of it."

Willingham said current laws require buyers to fill out Form 4473, which provides detailed background information on them.

"We call that into the FBI right here on the spot," Willingham said.  "They can either say proceed with the sale or delay it depending upon what they find out about this person."

Monitor mental illness

As divided as opinions are on the gun control issue, one point seems to be drawing general agreement from both sides -- better screening of people judged to be mentally ill when they try to buy a weapon.

That's getting support from Willingham, Alexandria Police Chief Mike Ward, Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

"I think the real solution is monitoring mental illness and also being more responsible," said Willingham.  "If you're a gun owner, be responsible.  Lock your guns up in a safe if they're going to be around minors or people that you know have mental instability."

Chief Ward said he's not a gun control advocate personally or professionally.

"I just feel that the people that are doing bad things are going to do bad things regardless of whether they obtain the weapon legally or illegally," he said.  "I think there's a lot of other areas that we can focus on than the tool you use to commit the murders."

That, he said, includes mental health treatment, which has been decentralized and decriminalized in Kentucky and many other states.

He praised the mental health court system in Northern Kentucky for it's inpatient treatment, but worries about patients once they're released.  

"If someone is not constantly following up with them, they may relapse right back into not taking their medication and having the same issues that brought them to the surface to begin with," he said.

Responsibility and the revolving door

Chief Ward doesn't think government is the answer.

"I think the answer to the problem is that individuals have to look inward to themselves and see what they can do to take self-responsibility for their own actions and their weapons," he said.

Cincinnati's Chief Craig said he worries about guns sold at flea markets and gun shows where it can be easier to buy a weapon than to get a driver's license.

"I struggle with that because who are we selling handguns to?" he said.  "What about the mentally ill?"

When he was Portland, Maine, Police Chief, Craig said he took a very strong stand on what he viewed as the failure of how the mentally ill are treated.  He called it a "revolving door," adding if medical professionals were not doing their job, there was going to be a crisis.  

"We saw time and again where individuals suffering from mental illness that in one case almost took the life of a police officer," he said.

Chief Craig added he doesn't know Ohio's mental health system well enough yet to make specific comments on how it operates.

Mental health and the justice system

Deters said many of the violent crimes his staff prosecutes involve mental illness, but getting them institutionalized can be very difficult.

"The standard that you need is very stringent and ultimately it's almost impossible to have someone taken off the streets," he said.

He suggests that the rules might need to be changed because the bottom line is potentially saving the lives of children.

"I think they need to look at that entire question to see if this is something that maybe should be loosened so they can get these people off the streets," he said.  "This is not just an issue for local governments and state governments.  This is a United States Supreme Court issue because they're the ones that set that ball in motion."

DeWine was a county prosecutor before serving in the U.S. Senate and as Ohio Attorney General.  That allowed him to see how mental health issues impact the criminal justice system.

When he first heard of the Connecticut shooting, DeWine said he immediately thought mental health issues were involved.

He said he's worked in Congress and with Ohio Supreme Court Justice Eve Stratton to try and get more treatment into prisons, jails and have the courts more focused like a laser to get them the appropriate treatment.

"To ignore this would be making a mistake," he said.

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