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March 10, 2010

"Nothing came up."

On February 12, professor Amy Bishop, 45, sat with her colleagues in a biology faculty meeting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Suddenly, without warning, she drew a semi-automatic 9 mm handgun and began methodically shooting those sitting closest to her. Bishop killed three and critically wounded three other colleagues before her weapon jammed. Faculty members were then able to push her out of the room and barricade the door. “She looked like she was intent on doing this, and she was angry,” said one of the survivors. Bishop was arrested outside the university shortly after calling her husband, James Anderson, to pick her up. As she was placed in a police car, she quietly muttered, “It didn’t happen ... There’s no way … They are still alive.

The shooting occurred after the university had denied Bishop’s last appeal for tenure. Her husband said she was frustrated with what he called a “tough, long, hard battle.” He also indicated she recently acquired the handgun used in the shootings. Bishop would only say that she borrowed the gun and was “cagey” about the details, according to Anderson. He had joined her in a trip to an indoor shooting range where she practiced her marksmanship.

After the massacre, Alabama police officials ran a background check on Bishop. “Nothing came up,” they reported. That nothing did is disturbing, and speaks to how America’s weak gun laws are incapable of stopping individuals who are clearly violent and deranged from legally acquiring guns.

Within hours after the shooting, news reports began to surface about Bishop’s bizarre past... In 1986, she fatally shot her 18-year old brother in their hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts. According to a police report, Bishop—who was 21 at the time—was trying to unload the family’s shotgun and accidentally discharged it into her bedroom wall. She then came downstairs to ask her mother for assistance and allegedly discharged the weapon as her brother walked past her in the kitchen, killing him. Bishop then ran out of the house, discharging the weapon into the wall on her way out.

Bishop fled to a nearby auto repair shop, where she entered the storefront and began searching for car keys. When two nearby men came to investigate, she turned her shotgun on them and told them to get their hands up. As one of the men recalled, Bishop was saying, “I need a car, I need to get out of here,” and ranting about how “[her husband] would be looking for her, and that if he found her he would kill her.” [Bishop was not married at the time.] Finally, police arrived. “I drew my service revolver and yelled three times ‘drop the rifle’,” Officer Timothy Murphy remembers. “After the third time, she did.” Bishop, however, was released from jail within hours and not questioned until 11 days later. She was never charged with any crime.

The man who was the Chief of the Braintree Police Department at the time, John Polio, said he never saw the police report in the case and called the investigation “shoddy and definitely fishy.” “To say someone accidentally fired a shot gun three times is crazy,” Polio states.

In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) questioned Bishop and her husband about two pipe bombs that were sent to Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a former colleague of Bishop’s at Boston’s Children Hospital. Rosenberg told ATF investigators that he played a role in Bishop’s resignation as a postdoctorate research fellow at the hospital’s neurobiology lab, explaining that Bishop “exhibited violent behavior” and “was not stable.” Another witness recalled that, “Anderson stated that he wanted to get back at Dr. Rosenberg and that he wanted to shoot him, bomb him, stab him or strangle [him].” The couple was never charged and the case remains unsolved to this day.

A third incident in Peabody, Massachusetts, occurred in 2002, when Bishop was arrested for punching a woman in the head at an International House of Pancakes after the woman took the restaurant’s last booster seat. According to the police report, Bishop struck the woman while yelling, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” Bishop was charged with assault, battery, and disorderly conduct. She eventually admitted to the assault, served probation, and the charges against her were dismissed.

How could someone with so many red flags in her background possibly come up clear in a background check?

There has been no formal confirmation from ATF as to where Bishop got her handgun, but she was a legal firearm purchaser under federal law. Federal law prohibits convicted felons, those under active restraining orders, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, and those who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution or adjudicated as a “mental defective” from purchasing guns (along with certain other categories). Individuals purchasing guns from Federally Licensed Firearm Dealers (FFLs) are run through the FBI’s National Instant Computer Background Check System (NICS) and, sometimes, through a state database. Because Bishop did fall under any of the prohibited categories mentioned above, she had no disqualifying records in the system.

An instant computer check (normally completed in a matter of minutes), however, is no background investigation. Only a few states in the country license handgun purchasers and conduct such investigations (i.e., New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts), in addition to running them through the NICS system (virtually every other industrialized democracy has licensing and registration processes for firearm purchasers that include background investigations). These investigations can involve detailed questionnaires and interviews with character witnesses (i.e., spouses, co-workers, friends, etc.). Law enforcement is typically given the discretion to deny licenses to individuals who present a threat to public safety.

Such background investigations are capable of yielding important information about individuals like Amy Bishop who fall through the cracks of a computer check but present numerous red flags in their backgrounds. Not coincidentally, states that conduct such investigations on handgun purchasers have some of the lowest gun death rates in the country.

The gun lobby has effectively bullied America’s legislators into believing that even minor inconveniences during the gun purchasing process are “infringements” on Second Amendment rights. But does anyone seriously believe that a system that is incapable of stopping individuals like Amy Bishop from buying guns would have been endorsed by our Founders? Or that they would have failed to see it as an obvious threat to individual liberty, given the resulting carnage?

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