IF YOU HAVE BEEN convicted of a crime in Pennsylvania and travel to another state to buy a gun, odds are your application will be denied.
There's a federal computer database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. State and local police, the ones who most often do background checks, can tap into NICS and find out about your criminal record in Pennsylvania. Since felons are forbidden to own guns, you will be denied.
But, suppose you have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution in Pennsylvania and went to another state upon your release? If you walked into a gun shop to purchase a gun and ammunition, odds are you could walk out with a loaded gun.
Federal law forbids people who have been committed to psychiatric care after a court hearing to own guns. The bar for involuntary commitment is high one. In Pennsylvania, those committed must have been seen as an imminent danger to themselves or others. A judge has to determine if a person can be forced to stay under care, making commitment a matter of official record.
To date, Pennsylvania has not participated in the NICS program to include information about former mental patients with adjudicated court records.
The Pennsylvania State Police, which has the data, says it wants to contribute to the NICS database, but spokeswoman Maria Finn attributes the failure to do so to "technical and legal issues."
State Rep. Todd Stephens, a former prosecutor, says he's been trying for some time to get an answer out of the State Police.
Stevens, a Republican from Montgomery County, plans to introduce a bill when the state Legislature returns in January to require the state to resolve whatever issues its has over sharing the records and send them to NICS within 90 days.
Obviously, the point is not to diminish the rights of anyone with a history of mental illness, but to identify the category of those in whose hands guns might be most dangerous.
This is the kind of common-sense solution the state can impose in these days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While there is no evidence that the NICS database would have come into play with Adam Lanza, limiting gun ownership in this way is a good idea.
In June, a General Accounting Office study showed that between 2004 and this year, as more and more states provided information on former mental patients to NICS, the number of people denied a request to buy a gun rose from 365 to 2,124.
Pennsylvania should join this list of states as soon as possible.
In the wake of the Connecticut shootings, various lawmakers have promised to revive their efforts to regulate guns in Pennsylvania. Proposals in the past have included limiting handgun purchases to one a month, fining people who fail to report a gun when it is lost or stolen, and a state ban on assault weapons.