Las Vegas Sun

September 1, 2015

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Report mental illnesses to block firearm sales

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As a father of two young children, I was deeply disturbed by the tragic and senseless shootings a few months ago in Newtown, Conn. Unfortunately, it took these shootings to force a discussion about the state of mental health in this country. I know from personal experience in my own family that mental illness is a very serious issue and one that has touched many families in our community. It has been exacerbated here in Nevada through drastic cuts in social services.

Recently, the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony from law enforcement officials and mental health experts about the state of mental health and access to firearms in Nevada. Simply put, these experts from the law enforcement and mental health communities believe it is far too easy in our state for those with significant mental illnesses to acquire firearms. More alarmingly, those who have been committed to institutions to be treated for mental illnesses rarely have those commitments reported to background check registries. This is a dangerous combination that puts those with mental illness and the community at risk.

We saw here in Nevada firsthand the deadly consequences from this gap in reporting those who are being treated for serious mental illnesses. On Sept. 6, 2011, Eduardo Sencion walked into an IHOP in Carson City and fired 60 rounds of ammunition in 27 seconds from a modified automatic weapon, killing four patrons, including three Nevada National Guardsmen, and seriously wounding several others.

Sencion was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at age 18 and was committed to a mental health facility several times. After the IHOP shooting, police recovered several guns at the scene and several more weapons and ammunition at his house. Reports show that Sencion purchased guns from licensed firearms dealers, as well as from private parties. Each time Sencion purchased firearms from a licensed dealer, an FBI background check was run. But because he was never involuntarily committed to a hospital for psychiatric treatment by a court, his name was never entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And no background check was required under current law for his private-party gun purchases. Common sense and hindsight tell us that someone who has been committed multiple times for mental health issues shouldn’t own guns.

Pure and simple: we need to fix this now. That is why I am introducing legislation this week to address glaring holes in Nevada’s reporting of mental illness and improve the background checks that are already required.

This legislation is not aimed at stigmatizing those suffering from mental illnesses. In fact, studies show that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of a crime than to commit one.

This common sense legislation will improve collaboration among mental health professionals and law enforcement, fix gaps in our system that currently allow people with severe mental illnesses to legally purchase firearms, and, by implementing universal background checks, close loopholes that would allow a man like Eduardo Sencion to purchase firearms.

This isn’t about taking away the rights of responsible gun owners. This is about making sure only those who are legally allowed to purchase firearms are able to do so. This is about improving the system we have by making sure that a background check is performed for every gun sale — nothing more, nothing less.

As a father, I believe we have a responsibility to work together to make our community safer. To do that, we have to make sure we aren’t selling guns to individuals whom our mental health professionals have found to be a danger to themselves or others.

Our responsibility is to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

State Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, represents District 9 in the southwest Las Vegas Valley.

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