Background checks

An opportunity to begin discussing guns civilly

After the most recent mass shooting involving the killing of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Connecticut, how to prevent such horrors has been the topic of considerable discussion. Expect that to continue, both in Denver and Washington.

The problem is that such talk too often degenerates into name-calling and paranoia, neither of which advances anyone's interests. What is needed is to find common ground.

A proposal from a Denver lawmaker could be a launching point for a civil discussion of just that.

State Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, would charge gun buyers for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation background check required to purchase a firearm. It is a proposal that has merit on several levels. It is fair, it could help the state with its budget woes, and it plays right into one of gun-rights advocates' favorite talking points.

While the taxpayers now pay for gun buyers' background checks, other people who are required to get background checks pay their own way. Teachers are one example. Why should gun buyers be different?

Plus, the state now has a backlog of 11,000 applications from gun buyers. The Colorado Department of Public Safety, which oversees the CBI, has asked for $500,000 to help it catch up. A 2010 estimate said asking gun buyers to cover the $10.50 fee would bring in $1.6 million per year.

Most important, though, gun buyers have reason to be part of any effort to stem mass killings involving guns. The saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," is self-evidently true. Guns are inanimate objects. The implication, however, is that the focus of any government action should be on the people who use guns to do bad things, not the guns themselves.

That is fair, as far as it goes. The problem is how to apply that thinking to massacres in which suicide is part of the killer's plan.

That might require a recognition that while guns do not kill people, a semi-automatic weapon with a large-capacity magazine does give tremendous leverage to a crazy person with murderous intent. The only option is to try to keep guns and crazies apart.

Court's idea is to use the revenue from charging gun buyers for their background checks to bolster mental-health treatment, although how that might work is uncertain. Most people with mental illness are neither dangerous nor readily identifiable.

The privacy and ethical issues involved with mental-health professionals reporting on potential gun buyers' mental states are daunting. The very idea may be beyond the current state of the science.

Perhaps backing further mental-health research should be the aim. Perhaps mental-health experts could help improve the background checks. Maybe it will become clear that this path is a dead end.

It is still worth a look. Court's thinking respects both gun-rights advocates' point of focusing on the killer, not the gun, as well as the broader concern that we have to do something to avert mass shootings.

With that, perhaps lawmakers can get beyond yelling and begin a real conversation.

And after the Columbine massacre and the July killing of 12 people in Aurora, with another 58 wounded, the Colorado Legislature is not a bad place to start.