The oft-quoted argument asserts that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” It is essential, then, that gun legislation clearly address who the people are who should not possess or purchase guns. As the country once again reacts to a tragedy with renewed interest in implementing new gun legislation, we must use caution to clearly identify who should be restricted from acquiring firearms.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 and its subsequent amendments fail at this task. When considering the ease with which persons with dangerous mental illnesses may legally purchase firearms because they do not meet technical and vague requirements under the Act—requirements put in place to prevent such persons from possessing firearms—it is clear that the Act fails. Tragic consequences result: six people dead at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona at the hands of Jared Lee Loughner; twelve people dead at the hands of James E. Holmes in Aurora, Colorado. Additionally, when information to warn against illegal purchase of firearms is not requested due to ill-informed interpretations of the language, tragic consequences result: thirty-three people dead at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at the hands of Seung Hui Cho. Loughner, Holmes, and Cho had shown signs of mental illness. Loughner, Holmes, and Cho purchased their firearms, the firearms they used for the murders they committed, from federally licensed firearms dealers. Loughner did so legally. Holmes did so legally. Cho did so without vital information regarding his dangerousness ever being reported. These three men slipped through the cracks and fifty-one people died as a result. The cracks exist due to the Act’s language and its interpretation—its defective language.
This Article addresses the failure of the Gun Control Act regarding persons with dangerous mental illness who purchase firearms in spite of their status of being dangerously mentally ill. By looking at two headline-grabbing cases, the Article explores the dire consequences of the Act’s vague—and even misleading—language. Alternative approaches, including issuing permits, are suggested as means to help prevent such tragic outcomes and to guide new legislation.