Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2013, 6:10 am

Continuing gun regulations discussion

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By Dan Lee

One more column on gun regulations and then on to other matters.

A reader who goes to more gun shows than I do emailed me to point out that FFL dealers are present at all gun shows here in Illinois. (FFL dealers have applied for and been granted a license to sell firearms by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.) I stand corrected.

While I believe that the gun control laws that are in place are basically good, I continue to be concerned about gaps in the system. As noted last week, everyone who applies to the Illinois State Police (ISP) for a Firearm Owner's Identification (FOID) card, which one must have in order to legally own firearms here in Illinois, is asked, "In the past 5 years, have you been a patient in a mental institution or any medical facility used primarily for the care or treatment of persons for mental illness?"

That is fine and good. However, it overlooks the fact that most of the treatment of individuals with mental health problems today is done on an outpatient basis, rather than in an institutional setting. It is also not clear how thoroughly ISP investigates applicants to see if they indeed are telling the truth if they say that they have not been treated for mental illness.

Then there is the problem of getting the information plugged into the system. Last week's column noted that here in Illinois, circuit clerks have been very haphazard about reporting mental health court orders to ISP, as is required by law. That is very simply unacceptable.

It is also not a foregone conclusion that relevant Illinois data (or data from any other state) always make its way into the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). President Obama has proposed that there be criminal background checks on all gun sales, including private sales. However, background checks are only as good as the data in the computerized systems used to conduct them, though I suppose that a glass half full is better than no glass at all.

Then there is an issue no one wants to talk about -- the accountability of gun owners who do not adequately secure their guns when they are not using them. Some of my extended family members, many of whom live out West, have loaded guns lying all over the place. Or if they are not loaded, they are standing in the corner or hanging on a gun rack, with the ammunition not far away. (This was the norm in the neck-of-the-woods in Montana where I grew up; not everything that my father did was a good idea.)

As reported on the front page of this newspaper a week ago, a new law in Illinois holds adults responsible if they look the other way with respect to underage drinking on their property. The Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act states that adults who do so face a fine of at least $500 and possible jail time.

There is a strong case to be made for a similar law pertaining to firearms. If I leave guns I own lying around unprotected and someone uses them to commit a crime, I am responsible for that crime (as well as, of course, the person who commits the crime.) The same applies to death or injuring resulting from children playing with firearms and other accidents causing death or injury.

When guns are not being used for hunting, trap shooting or other appropriate purposes, they ought to be locked up in gun safes or otherwise secured. To put this in slightly different words, if you are a gun owner and do not have your gun with you, it belongs in a gun safe. If you don't have a gun safe, get one. It's part of being a responsible gun owner.

The debate about gun regulations, of course, is far from over. Next week's column, however, will address other matters. It's time to move on, at least for now.
Dan Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College;