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Coding gun control

A report in today’s New York Times illustrates both the promise and the difficulties of (legal) code as (software) code (U.S. Rules Made Killer Ineligible to Purchase Gun). Apparently, slight discrepancies between the wording of Virginia and federal laws that disqualify the “mentally defective” from purchasing a handgun created a gap that enabled Seung-Hui Cho to purchase the weapons he used to carry out his killing spree:

…[T]he form that Virginia courts use to notify state police about a mental health disqualification addresses only the state criteria, which list two potential categories that would warrant notification to the state police: someone who was “involuntarily committed” or ruled mentally “incapacitated.”

However, Mr. Cho belonged to a third category: “determination by a court, board, commission or other lawful authority” that as a result of mental illness, the person is a “danger to himself or others.” Thus, a special justice’s order that he seek outpatient care and that also declared him an imminent danger to himself was never transmitted to the federal system of handling background checks for handgun purchases.

The article mentions Representative Carolyn McCarthy’s efforts to “automate their criminal history records so computer databases used to conduct background checks on gun buyers are more complete.” McCarthy (who happens to represent my hometown) introduced in January H.R. 297. The bill would require state officials to report disqualifications to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as well as provide funds to fund “establish or upgrade information and identification technologies for firearms eligibility determinations” and “improve the automation and transmittal to federal and state record repositories” disqualifying factors.

Monday’s tragedy offers an extreme example of what happens when jurisdictions fail to reconcile discrepancies in their laws. The answer, however, doesn’t really lie in information technology. Virginia laws didn’t match federal laws, no matter what the technological implementation; no amount of software coding would have changed that. IT can speed up the transfer of information, but an information pipe with no connection on the other side would still be a road to nowhere. Fixing state-federal disconnects will require more than just software code: it will take monkeying around with old-fashioned legal code.

(See also my personal response to the Virginia Tech shootings).