We "have laws on the books designed to prevent people with mental illnesses from getting firearms."

Paul Ryan on Thursday, February 15th, 2018 in a briefing with reporters

After Parkland, Paul Ryan cites law on mentally ill and guns, but it has limited reach

Protesters seeking gun reform gathered outside the Florida Capitol one week after the shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 people. (Andrew Salinero/USA Today Network)

A week after confessed Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz -- who had some level of mental health problems -- killed 17 people, President Donald Trump promised tougher mental health screening for gun buyers.

Trump’s pledge seemed to contrast with a claim made the day after the shooting by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.

In his weekly briefing with reporters on Feb. 15, 2018, the Wisconsin Republican said while discussing the Florida case:

Remember, we do have laws on the books designed to prevent people with mental illnesses from getting firearms.

Ryan alluded primarily to a 1968 federal law.

Let’s see what it does.

Federal law

The federal Gun Control Act was passed following the 1968 assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Among other things, it prohibits anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution" from possessing a firearm.

That’s a small portion of people with mental illness. And it doesn’t account for people who are more likely to be dangerous but don’t meet the threshold of being adjudicated or committed.

Here are more specifics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives:

Adjudicated as a mental defective means a court or other lawful authority has determined that a person, as a result of mental illness or other conditions, "is a danger to himself or others, lacks the capacity" to manage his own affairs, or "is found insane by a court in a criminal case."

Committed to a mental institution means a court or another authority has formally sent -- that is, involuntarily committed -- a person to a mental institution.

Besides the federal law, Ryan’s office also cited similar state laws on gun possession and mental illness, but the federal law is primary here.

Think of a funnel

To grasp what the federal law does, picture a funnel. At the top are people with some form of mental illness; at the bottom are the relatively few who are prohibited from possessing a gun.

Millions have mental illness: About 45 million U.S. adults live with mental illness, including 10 million who have a serious mental illness, according to the federal National Institute of Mental Health. "Serious mental illness" refers to "a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities."  

Relatively few are violent: People with mental illness are much more likely to be a victim of a violent crime, not a perpetrator, according to studies. Only 4 percent of violence toward others in American society is attributable to mental illness, according to John Monahan, a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Virginia.

Few shooters adjudicated/committed: "The existing body of research on mass shooters suggests that a history of civil commitment or legal adjudication" -- the standards set by the federal law -- "is practically unheard of among perpetrators of mass homicide and mass homicide-suicide, according to Gun Violence and Mental Illness, a 2016 book published by the American Psychiatric Association.

(Experts told the New York Times -- which noted Cruz was clearly troubled but had no mental diagnosis -- that if Cruz had undergone a full psychiatric evaluation, it might have resulted in a temporary commitment at best, but not full-time institutionalization. One who has studied mass killers said: "Most of these shooters are angry, antisocial individuals you cannot spot in advance, and even if you could, you don’t have the right to institutionalize them.")

Meanwhile, there are issues with the federal law itself.

Problems with the law

The federal law is both overinclusive and underinclusive, experts told us.

Many mentally ill people who are covered by the federal law prohibiting them from having a gun do not pose a danger to others, said Pace University law professor and mental disability law expert Linda Fentiman.

At the same time, she said, the law does not cover people who could pose more danger -- such as some schizophrenics who are also substance abusers and have committed violent acts -- if they haven’t been adjudicated or committed.

Indeed, many people with more serious conditions go undiagnosed or do not get treatment, much less end up in a legal proceeding over their illness.

Fentiman’s points were also made in a law journal article by a New York University law professor and gun law expert James Jacobs, which says:

Undoubtedly, court proceedings are never initiated for the majority of dangerously mentally ill individuals … Likewise, a significant percentage of those adjudicated mentally defective or civilly committed are not actually dangerous.

A footnote

Before we close, a footnote on one gun restriction change, given that it has received references since the Florida school shooting:

In February 2017, Trump and Congress rescinded an executive order signed two months earlier by President Barack Obama. It was intended to prohibit an estimated 75,000 people who have mental illness and get Social Security disability benefits from buying guns. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the order, saying it "advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent."

Our rating

Responding to the Florida school shooting, in which the confessed shooter has some history of mental health problems, Ryan said we "have laws on the books designed to prevent people with mental illnesses from getting firearms."

A federal law, and some state laws, do prohibit people adjudicated as "mentally defective" or involuntarily committed to a mental health facility from possessing a gun.

But experts say that standard includes people who do not pose a danger to others. And it does not account for a much larger set of people who might be dangerous but have not been diagnosed with, or treated for, a serious mental illness.

For a statement that is partially accurate but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Half True.

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We "have laws on the books designed to prevent people with mental illnesses from getting firearms."
In a briefing with reporters
Thursday, February 15, 2018