Bobby Jindal's Case for (a Tiny Bit of) Gun Control

His call to include mental-health info in background checks is radical only within the Republican Party—but it might not do much to stop killings anyway.

Bobby Jindal is presented with a rifle at a Republican Party of Arkanas fundraiser in 2012. (Danny Johnston / AP)

Bobby Jindal has sometimes struggled to garner attention for his presidential campaign by declaiming on issues important to hardcore conservatives. Unsolicited, he weighed in on Rudy Giuliani’s musing that Barack Obama doesn’t love America (Jindal agreed). When other states backed off so-called religious-freedom laws and orders, Jindal went out of his way to issue an executive order doing the same in Louisiana.

Jindal’s latest comments might attract the attention of strong conservatives, but they’re unlikely to meet with approval. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, the Louisiana governor discussed the shooting at a theater in Lafayette on July 23, in which a gunman killed two women before shooting himself. Jindal noted that Louisiana reports information on involuntary commitments for mental illness to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“I think every state should strengthen their laws,” he said. “Every state should make sure this information is being reported in the background system. We need to make sure that background system is working. Absolutely, in this instance, this man never should have been able to buy a gun.”

That’s a notable statement because elected Republican officeholders have generally tended to oppose any expansion of gun laws. Although polls showed that a great majority of Americans favored at least modest new restrictions on gun access—including, notably, expanded background checks to close existing loopholes—legislation to implement such measures failed in Congress in 2013 on strong opposition from Republicans.

Jindal stands out from the pack on this issue. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, one of Jindal’s rivals for the GOP nod, said that Thursday’s shooting ought to inspire looser gun laws: “I believe that, with all my heart, that if you have the citizens who are well trained, and particularly in these places that are considered to be gun-free zones, that we can stop that type of activity, or stop it before there's as many people that are impacted as what we saw in Lafayette.” Other Republicans haven’t offered much comment. (Donald Trump, for what it’s worth, says the shooting “has nothing to do with guns.”)

As Jindal noted, Louisiana only implemented automatic reporting of mental-health information to NICS a couple years ago. Even as the national gun-control legislation after the Newtown massacre foundered, Jindal—who enjoys an A-plus rating from the NRA—successfully pushed to overturn a Louisiana law that blocked mental-health reporting to NICS. It’s intriguing to imagine Jindal pushing to his party’s left on gun politics. There simply isn’t much room left to the right, and besides, the NRA has been notably more open to mental-health-focused restrictions than to other types of gun regulation. To paraphrase, the group argues that guns don’t kill people; the mentally ill sometimes do. That means the position that Jindal is staking out isn’t at all radical, even though it’s to Perry’s left.

In theory, federal law has long barred persons who are adjudicated to be mentally ill, or involuntarily committed to a mental institution, from acquiring firearms. In practice, reporting is pretty shoddy—many states simply have no mechanism for or don’t bother to send information to the national database, where it’s used for the background checks that determine whether someone is eligible to buy a gun. Activists say reporting has generally improved in the last few years.

It’s also not clear that, even if the loopholes were closed, reporting of this sort would actually make a difference. John Houser, the Lafayette shooter, is said to have bought the gun he used legally in Alabama in 2014. (Background-check systems have a variety of loopholes and delays, and a failure of some variety allowed Charleston shooter Dylann Roof to purchase a gun.) Some reports suggested that he had been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 2008. On Monday, however, the Georgia judge in that case said there had been no involuntary commitment. The judge ordered Houser’s apprehension and evaluation at a mental hospital, but if Houser was released after that evaluation, or voluntarily extended his stay without a court order, he would not have been barred from purchasing a firearm under the law.

Many mass shootings have involved people who wouldn’t have been stopped by stricter laws. That includes those whose names are run through the database without any flags—including James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, shooter; Jared Loughner, who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona; and now possibly Houser—and those who receive guns from family members or as gifts, including Newtown shooter Adam Lanza.

But the larger question is whether there’s really much link between mental illness and gun violence. Jeffrey Swanson, a psychologist and sociologist at Duke, has studied the link at length, and he has found that mental illness is a bad predictor of gun violence—those who became violent were often using drugs or alcohol, which is a better predictor, whether or not they were mentally ill. Most mass murderers don’t have a psychiatric history, while a vast majority of people suffering from mental illness won’t ever commit an act of violence, much less a mass murder.

Swanson compared results before and after Connecticut began reporting mental-health information to NICS, ProPublica notes, and found that while submitting the information was an effective way to keep the mentally ill from getting guns, it didn’t do much to actually decrease violence—it reduced predicted violent crime by less than half of 1 percent.

Is that enough to bother? Reducing violent crime is obviously a positive goal, but there are plenty of steps that governments of all levels could take that would produce incremental reductions, but which they don’t do, because the costs are too great or the payoff too little. Swanson told ProPublica’s Lois Beckett last year that the simplest way to reduce gun crime is reduce the number of guns around.

“What we try to do is keep the guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and that's hard, because it's hard to predict, and we have almost more guns than people,” he said.

But it’s clear that the United States, with its unusual history with guns, its atypical constitutional protection of the right to bear arms, and its powerful gun lobby, is unlikely to take any step so drastic any time soon—despite repeated mass killings. In the absence of such reform, the improved reporting Jindal called for may be better than nothing, but it’s unlikely to break the pattern of shootings.