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May 17, 2010

The Strong Link in the Chain

The record is clear: Gun control primarily impacts upon upstanding citizens, not criminals,” the National Rifle Association (NRA) states on its website. Ignoring both national and international data on gun death and homicide, the gun lobby claims that gun control has no positive effect whatsoever. A recent high-profile tragedy, however, illustrates how dangerous individuals can be effectively prevented from acquiring firearms by strong gun laws.

On March 4, California resident John Patrick Bedell, 36, opened fire on two police officers at the entrance of the Pentagon. He was armed with two semiautomatic 9mm handguns despite a history of mental illness and early warnings from family members that he might pose a danger to himself and others. The officers were wounded and, returning fire, killed Bedell.

Bedell’s early adulthood was marked by promise and potential. He was an intelligent young man who was close to receiving a degree in electrical engineering from San Jose State University. Approximately ten years ago, however, he began to spiral into mental illness. Doctors diagnosed him as bipolar and manic-depressive, and Bedell began to self-medicate by growing and smoking marijuana that may have enhanced the symptoms of his disorder. His family states that despite their attempts to keep him in treatment, he was eventually consumed by conspiracy theories and virulently anti-government beliefs.

Eventually these extreme beliefs led to violent thoughts. Jeffrey Bedell stated that his brother had attempted to purchase a firearm in Rancho Cordova, California, in January. The purchase was denied because he failed to pass the required background check as a result of his mental health history.

Under federal law, anyone that has been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution is prohibited from purchasing firearms. California provides additional restrictions under state law that give it the most effective gun control regime in the country, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. As a “Point of Contact” state, California searches not only the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for disqualifying records, but also a database maintained by the California Department of Justice. This database contains records from the California Department of Mental Health, which is required by state law to forward them. California has submitted more mental health records to NICS than any other state, more than 200,000 in total. The Golden State also requires background checks on all gun sales, whether they are made by Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers (FFLs) or private individuals.

After he was prevented from buying a handgun in California, Bedell still had the option to buy firearms in neighboring states with far weaker gun laws. It appears that at least one of Bedell’s handguns was obtained through an unregulated private sale in Nevada. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traced the Sturm, Ruger & Co. 9mm used by Bedell to a Las Vegas gun show 19 days after he failed his background check in Rancho Cordova.

The Ruger’s trail originated with the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee. The department seized the handgun five years ago from a felon during a traffic stop and traded it to a licensed gun dealer in Georgia. The Ruger then turned up at a Las Vegas gun show earlier this year, where it was transferred through a private party sale. Authorities say this individual then sold the handgun to another private party, which may or may not have been Bedell. At that point the trail goes cold, because although Las Vegas County requires handgun registration, it is the only county in Nevada that does. Wherever and whenever Bedell obtained his handguns, he did so without undergoing a background check or filling out any paperwork.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca summed up the problem accurately: “The key is anyone can leave California and buy a gun anywhere else that doesn’t have strong gun laws. Whether you’re mentally ill or stable, either way, guns are easily accessible because states have different policies.” Translation: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The next time the gun lobby tells us that gun control is doomed to fail because criminals don’t obey laws, we should remember that states like California don’t give them a choice in the matter. If the Golden State was the model for the other 49 states, deranged individuals like John Patrick Bedell would be significantly hindered in their quest for lethal firepower.

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