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June 1, 2009

Attack of the Black Dwarves

On May 24, a 56 year-old male resident of Elyria, Ohio, went to a nearby house armed with a shotgun and asked his neighbor to call 911. When police arrived, they ordered the man to put the shotgun down, but he refused, stating, “I can’t, I’m protecting myself, I have a concealed carry permit.” After police promised to protect him, he put the gun down, and said that two armed black men were in his home. He also told officers that the night before the same black men had broken into his home, but he had chased them down the street, firing a full magazine of 9mm rounds at them.

Officers entered the man’s home and found no intruders or signs of forced entry. They did, however, find “pans, bowls and other containers throughout the house containing moldy food.” They also found 11 guns along with knives, swords and ammunition. The man told the officers that he had the weapons “so he could be prepared for the next war to begin.” As they searched the home, he told officers outside that “even more black men were inside the home then he first reported and described them as three-legged dwarves with one of their legs being a roller skate they used to escape from places.”

Police confiscated 23 weapons from the man’s home and took him to EMH Regional Medical Center for evaluation. They also contacted the Nord Center, a provider of mental health services.

The Lorain County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that it issued the man a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Ohio is a “shall-issue” state, meaning that authorities have to issue a concealed carry permit to any applicant who passes a basic computerized background check. Federal law prohibits anyone who has been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution from owning or purchasing firearms. At last count, however, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was missing 90% of the mental health records that would disqualify Americans who fall under these two categories. The Virginia Tech Review Panel dealt directly with these issues and recommended that the states forward all necessary mental health records to NICS as promptly as possible, and that new legislation be enacted to prohibit those who have been voluntarily committed to mental institutions from owning or purchasing firearms.

If they have not been adjudicated incompetent by the court system, we have no choice but to issue a license,” said Lorain County Sheriff’s Captain Richard Resendez. “The law does not give us the ability to act on our instincts.” Capt. Resendez has indicated the man’s permit will be suspended, but said, “it would likely take a court finding him mentally incompetent to permanently revoke it.”

There is no guarantee that will happen. A 2003 presidential commission on mental health concluded that: “For too many Americans with mental illnesses, the mental health services and supports they need remain fragmented, disconnected and often inadequate, frustrating the opportunity for recovery. Today’s mental health care system is a patchwork relic—the result of disjointed reforms and policies. Instead of ready access to quality care, the system presents barriers that all too often add to the burden of mental illnesses for individuals, their families, and our communities.”

Given the imperfect nature of background checks and the mental health system, legislators in “shall-issue” states would do far better to prioritize public safety over the wishes of a vocal minority who seek to carry guns in public. Tying the hands of law enforcement officers who are well-placed to determine potential threats to their communities makes little sense.

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