NYC's Rules on Mental Illness and Guns

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Photo by: DEA/NYPD

"Right now in the drawer right next to where I'm sitting I have that Smith & Wesson Airweight," Richard Feldman, a gun lobbyist, told me the afternoon I spoke to him this summer.

Feldman, a former NRA operative who'd broken with the association over its tactics, said he keeps the small revolver handy in case someone drops by his New Hampshire home with malice aforethought. "If someone drives up and I'm not expecting tem, I don’t go out with my dick in my hand," he said.

The Airweight was Feldman's first gun. He now has 140 firearms. And, he noted, they are all safe and secure in the possession of a responsible gun owner.

"Of course," he added as an aside, "I could be loony tunes tomorrow."

The shooting tragedy in Newtown has focused new attention on the issue of mental illness and guns because Adam Lanza, the killer, suffered from some psychological disorder—although it's unclear exactly what diagnosis applied to his condition.

The same was true in 2005 after the Virginia Tech massacre; the shooter there, Seung-Hui Cho, suffered from mental problems.

In response, Congress imposed financial carrots and sticks to get states to do a better job of reporting the names of people deemed mentally deficient to the National Instant Check System (NICS), the computerized background-check tool that federally licensed gun dealers must use for every sale. But gun control groups say those measures have not proved adequate.

Layers of laws

Federal law says it's illegal to sell a gun or ammunition to someone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” According to the FBI, of the 976,000 people denied the right to purchase firearms through the NICS from 1998 through the end of November 2012, some 9,700—or 1 percent—were denied because of their mental health status.

But a report this summer found that 2 million people who ought to be on the federal no-gun list aren’t because of poor reporting by states.

But the NICS is only one layer of gun regulation. States have a huge hand in restricting access to firearms—and according to the National Council of State Legislatures, states display very different approaches to mental illness.

New York state's law is that "No license shall be issued or renewed except for an applicant … who has stated whether he or she has ever suffered any mental illness or been confined to any hospital or institution, public or private, for mental illness." It also stipulates that "the records of the appropriate office of the department of mental hygiene concerning previous or present mental illness of the applicant shall be available