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June 16, 2008

Folk Villain

On May 24, thousands of people gathered to listen to music and dance at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, Washington. Among the crowd was a 22 year-old man from Snohomish County named Clinton C. Grainger, who brought with him a Glock 19 handgun concealed in an ankle holster. Reports indicate that a fight began when Grainger gave a man at the festival a confrontational look as he walked by. The man said he thought he recognized Grainger and asked his name. Instead of answering, Grainger pushed the man in the chest and went for the gun in his ankle holster, firing the sidearm once. The bullet passed through the man’s nasal cavity, penetrated another person’s wrist and finally lodged in a third person’s leg. Miraculously, none of these three victims were critically injured, and all are currently recovering.

It seems odd that someone attending a peaceful music festival would feel the need to carry a gun on his person. But since that day, local law enforcement officials have discovered a number of startling facts about Grainger.

Since he was 18 years old, Grainger had been enrolled in a treatment program for drug addiction. He also struggled with mental illness, and was taking prescribed medication for anxiety and schizophrenia. Additionally, Grainger had a record of juvenile convictions for misdemeanor theft and possession of stolen property.

Despite these issues, Grainger was granted a permit to carry a concealed weapon by the state of Washington in 2007. Washington is a “shall-issue” state, meaning that local law enforcement officials must issue a concealed carry permit to any applicant who meets a basic set of qualifications and passes a computerized instant background check. Under federal law, those with felony convictions or domestic violence-related misdemeanor convictions are prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms. The state of Washington also prohibits those convicted of “any crime of violence.” Grainger’s convictions, however, were for non-violent juvenile misdemeanor offenses, so they were not flagged when his background check was run.

Nor did Grainger’s diagnosis of schizophrenia prevent him from passing his background check. Federal law prohibits the possession or purchase of firearms by those who have been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution—neither of which conditions applied to Grainger’s case. Grainger also avoided disqualification for his drug addiction by claiming on his background check form that he was not “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana, or any depressant, stimulant or narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.”

In the wake of recent tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, many Americans are undoubtedly wondering why it is still so easy for individuals with histories of mental illness to purchase firearms and even obtain permits to carry concealed handguns. One thing is certain: Grainger would not have been able to obtain a concealed carry permit in a “may-issue” state, where local law enforcement is given the discretion to withhold a permit from an applicant who might pose a threat to themselves or others, regardless of whether they pass an instant background check.

In response to the shooting at the Folklife Festival, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has signed an executive order requiring the city to come up with a plan to prohibit visitors from bringing firearms into city facilities. Mayor Nickels deserves praise for this important step to improve public safety—however, in order to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, we must ensure that individuals are thoroughly screened before they are allowed to purchase and carry firearms.

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