Prepared by:
Jean Arnold, Antistigma Home Page
National Stigma Clearinghouse


The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)

(Also called "Our Lady of Peace Act: OLOPA", and the NICS Improvement Act)


The checkered history of the NICS program includes several attempts to expand this federal database of individuals who are prohibited from purchasing guns. In pushing for expansion, however, proponents have singled out rare but highly-publicized violent acts by people with mental illnesses despite this group's minuscule role in violent crimes. Protests by the mental health community have been ignored.

Below are articles (in chronological order) giving background, and perhaps showing the questionable ethics of pinpointing a largely law-abiding minority to publicize a criminal database.

April 14, 2002 - News of the Week


When New York's Governor George E. Pataki signed Kendra's Law in the autumn of 1999, it was accompanied by a modest addition of funds to carry out the law's mandate for court-ordered treatment. There was no promise of future funding to pay for the enriched services required to make "assisted treatment" a viable program for people ordered to take medication.

The result today is that underfunded community programs have been forced to stretch their budgets and asked to do more with less. The expiration and non-renewal of the highly-praised Community Reinvestment Act, which shifted funds from shut-down hospital beds to community programs, is a further demoralizing blow. A staffing crisis has developed as underpaid community workers move on to better jobs at alarming rates. In Nassau County, New York, a respected agency has lost two-thirds of its case managers in the past four years.

Four weeks ago in Nassau County, Peter Troy, a man known to the system as "so unstable that he needed to be closely monitored" eluded a community program "so understaffed it is in a crisis situation." Early reports indicate that two deaths, a priest and a parishioner attending Mass in Lynbrook, Long Island, were a tragic result of Troy's loss of contact with services.

Once again, a new law is proposed to fix the problem. At a cost of $1.25 billion spread over five years, involuntary psychiatric hospitalization records would be added to the federal computer system that currently checks for criminal backgrounds of potential gun purchasers. On April 9, U. S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York announced that in June the federal bill will be introduced in Congress.

Joseph A. Glazer, Esq., President/CEO of the New York Mental Health Association (see below), quickly wrote to Senator Schumer urging him to reconsider the proposal, suggesting a better use for public money. "How many new case managers would that $1.25 billion bring into our system? How many community-based programs would that money shore up? ... At this very moment, we are continuing our effort to get direct care workers in mental health a living wage, to better our treatment system, and stem the staff vacancy rates that approach 50 percent in some of our progams. ... Simply put, it is erroneous, prejudicial, discriminatory and stigmatizing to equate a person receiving mental health treatment with criminality, as your proposal does. There is no factual basis to link a person who receives help for their mental health needs and some non-existent connection to increased gun violence. ... Criminal background checks are for criminals. Money spent in pursuit of issues of mental health should be spent in treating mental health, not stigmatizing it."

Glazer's views were echoed in a Newsday opinion piece by Christopher Slobogin, a professor at the University of Florida's G.Levin College of Law (see below). Slobogin urges that before jumping on the new-law bandwagon, people should consider what is known about violence and mental illnesses. All studies show there is little difference in homicide rates for people diagnosed with mental illnesses and the general public. Higher rates of homicide correlate with significant arrest records, antisocial behavior, and substance abuse, not mental illness. Slobogin points out that people are dangerous to others or to themselves for all sorts of reasons: domestic abusers, disgruntled employees, and bankrupt business executives. "Should we bar gun sales to spouses who have had violent arguments, workers who are angry at their bosses, and all Enron executives?" Slobogin asks. "Why stop with people who suffer with mental illness? Following the lead of some European countries with stricter gun laws than ours, perhaps we should make in-depth inquiries about every gun purchaser, not just those who happen to have a diagnosis of mental illness."

Neil Slater, president of the Nassau and Queens chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill also opposes the bill on the grounds that "it seems to be an abrogation of the Constitution to deny a civil right that is available to others [purchase of a long gun] to somebody who once suffered from a mental illness and has recovered."

Kendra's Law was created after Andrew Goldsein, a man who kept asking New York's psychiatric institutions to do something about his uncontrollable violent impulses, fell through "the cracks." We don't know Peter Troy's full story, but it appears he has fallen through the same cracks. In the words of Joseph Glazer, "People will continue to slip through the cracks until we fill them."

For a copy of Joseph Glazer's letter to Sen. Schumer, April 10, E-mail:

October 13, 2002 - News of the Week


Assumes unknown "sniper on a killing spree" has a mental illness

Using bogus homicide numbers and a bumbling choice of archive materials, "Armed and Dangerous," (a 60 Minutes segment, October 13) tried to link a proposed federal gun law amendment, a series of sniper murders, and mental illness. Not enough time was spent on opposing facts and views, and people with mental illnesses were made to seem like one of society's most dangerous populations.

This is just the latest example of "walking time bomb" stories aired by CBS on 48 Hours, 60 Minutes, and 60 Minutes II. The earliest example in our CBS News file is a report in 1987 by Bernard Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg mentioned some form of "killing" 20 times in the 4-minute "news" piece, which concerned five violent incidents committed by "deranged" people over an unspecified number of years.

Last night, "Armed and Dangerous" tried to weave together stories about the present sniper killer in Maryland; a proposed gun law to add involutarily-committed psychiatric patients to federal criminal databases; and high-profile shootings by Colin Ferguson (1993), Russell Weston (1995) , Michael McDermott (2000), and Peter Troy (2002). Only Mr. Weston and Mr. Troy had any history of involuntary institutionalization, meaning that the gun law amendment would not have red-flagged the other two men for gun checks.

The important story missed is that Weston and Troy are prime examples of dismal mental health system failure. Mr. Weston was known both to the system and the FBI as someone who desperately needed help. Mr. Troy was also well-known as deeply disturbed and needing intensive care. Both cases show negligence at all levels of government to fund the required programs.

Most outrageous were the lead-in statements by Steve Croft: "Why is it so hard to stop deranged gunmen from terrorizing American communities, like the sniper who has terrorized Maryland?" And, "Every year across the United States, nearly 1,000 homicides are committed by people with severe mental illness."

The initial statement has two flaws. First, it assumes that the Maryland sniper is "deranged," at a time when there is absolutely no evidence to that effect. The killer could equally as plausibly be a sociopath, or an El Queda terrorist, or simply an angry boy of the Columbine type. Secondly, it implies that such activity is going on almost routinely across America, when anyone who reads the newspapers knows it is not.

The second statement includes the infamous "1,000 homicides" statistic that originated in the fevered imagination of Dr. Fuller Torrey, and is unsupported by any scientific evidence.

In addition, the program failed to stress the existence of various sub-populations in this country that are far more violence-prone than people with mental illnesses.

One has to express dismay at such a sloppy, misshapen piece of journalism. It certainly falls far below the standards we have come to expect from 60 Minutes.

This segment must not be repeated. Contact 60 Minutes and executives at CBS.

E-mail Viewer comment:

Telephone comment: 212-975-3247

Mail: Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes, CBS News, 524 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019

David F. Poltrack, Senior V.P., Research & Planning, CBS, Inc., 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019

For a transcript ($9 + $3 fee for tel.), call 1-800-777-8398

November 10, 2002 - News of the Week


Judging from confused reports, the media is baffled by a proposed federal gun law amendment that will put names of law-abiding psychiatric patients and ex-patients on a "criminal" list. One example is a rush by "60 MINUTES" to plug the bill by linking it (wrongly) to a then-nameless serial sniper near Washington DC.  (In eerie proof of "60 MINUTES' " power to influence, three days after Steve Croft told viewers the bill had been "gutted in committee," it passed the House unanimously without discussion.)

Mental health advocates fear further erosion of the civil rights of millions of individuals with mental illnesses, many of whom have spent time involuntarily in psychiatric institutions for reasons totally unrelated to guns, violence, or crime.
If the law passes the U. S. Senate, the names of millions of law-abiding citizens will be added to a federal checklist alongside people convicted of felonies, domestic violence, and other illegal acts.
A brief background: New York's U. S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy and U. S. Senator Charles Schumer have proposed federal legislation to expand the computer database of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.  The database is used to screen applicants for long gun purchases.  The legislators presumably believe that a bigger database will lower the nation's toll of homicides (now about 16,500 annually) and reduce gun-related crimes.
In the House, #HR4757 passed on October 16 by voice vote without a hearing or discussion!  Senate Bill #S2826 may reach the Senate floor in November.  The bill was triggered by the tragic shooting deaths on March 12, 2002 of a Long Island priest and a parishioner.  The shooter was a threatening individual who was well known to have violent tendencies but eluded the fragmented, understaffed system -- a failure that now may affect countless lives nationwide.
Basically, the Schumer/McCarthy legislation gives states financial support to supply information to the U. S. Justice Department on seven categories of people who are barred from buying firearms by a 1968 federal law, plus two newly added groups. 

Under the 1968 law, to qualify for gun ownership a person must state that he or she: "(i.) is not under indictment for and has not been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year: (ii.) is not a fugitive from justice: (iii.) is not an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act): (iv.) has not been adjudicated as a mental defective or been committed to a mental institution: (v.) is not an alien who is illegally or unlawfully in the United States: (vi.) has not been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions; and (vii.) is not a person who, having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced such citizenship."
The amendment prohibits two new groups from purchasing guns: Individuals who are subject to a court order restraining them from domestic violence, and individuals who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.
The national criminal background checklist was created in 1998 as part of the theBrady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (Brady Act).  Since that time, data supplied by state and local law enforcement agencies to the federal database has been seriously incomplete.  The proposed amendment's introduction states that many thousands of criminals have obtained firearms because 25 states have automated less than 60 percent of their felony criminal conviction records. An estimated 25-30 percent of states lack automated records of domestic violence and misdemeanor convictions; 33 states do not share mental health records.

The new proposed legislation provides $375 million over 3 years to states to improve their record keeping and reporting to NICS of information regarding individuals barred from having a gun.
The bill is called the "Our Lady of Peace Act" to commemorate the two individuals slain at the Roman Catholic church in Lynbrook, Long Island on March 12th. But why have the bill's authors and the press put such emphasis on psychiatric patients when this group ranks far below others in risk of gun violence? 

Does "mental defective" include people with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, retardation, and other neurological impairments?  Will their names be entered in the database?  And what mechanism will supply data to the NICS about users and addicts of controlled substances (category iii.) ?
The Schumer/McCarthy bill reminds us of the earlier campaign for the Brady Bill to stem gun fatalities.  Gun control activists targeted "madmen" and "the John Hinckleys of the world" as major threats to public safety.  Then as now, blame for the nation's gun violence fell disproportionately on people with mental illnesses.  Why blame a group whose violent acts are a mere blip in the staggering number of gun-related crimes in our society?
Rep. McCarthy has suffered unbearable loss from gunfire.  Her husband died and her son was seriously injured when Colin Ferguson opened fire on a Long Island commuter train in 1993, killing 6 people and wounding 19 others.  It has been apparently forgotten, however, that Ferguson purchased his 9 mm. semi-automatic pistol in a state with strict gun laws (California) and the purchase was entirely legal.  After filling out a sheaf of state and federal application forms, Ferguson waited for a mandated 15 days before picking up the weapon.  Furthermore, he had no record of involuntary psychiatric commitment (nor voluntary inpatient or outpatient treatment) and would not have appeared on the NICS checklist even if the new law had been in effect.  A similar story applies to John Hinckley.
Rep. McCarthy admits that trying to modernize the archaic 1968 law would be doomed to failure.  Therefore she is willing to accept a flawed amendment.  While we share the desire of our legislators to end gun violence, even before its passage the proposed bill is inflicting prejudice, discrimination, injustice, and anguish on millions of innocent individuals.

ACTION IS NEEDED BEFORE THE SENATE VOTES ! As it stands, the bill will cause broad damage.

  • URGENT! Contact your U. S. Senators in both their district offices and in Washington. The Senate will resume session in mid-November. For contact info: call 1-800-839-5276. Google Search is an excellent resource for senate members, senate schedule, etc. etc.

  • Let the bill's authors know your views.
    U. S. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy
    1224 Longworth House Office Building
    Washington, DC 20515
    Tel: 202-225-5516; Fax 202-225-5757
    District Office: 1 Fulton Avenue, Suite 30
    Hempstead, NY 11550
    Tel: 516-489-7066; Fax 516-489-7283   
    U. S. Senator Charles E. Schumer
    313 Hart Senate Office Building
    Washington, DC 20510
    Tel: 202-224-6542; Fax 202-228-3027
    District Office: 757 Third Avenue, Suite 17-02
    New York, NY 10017
    Tel: 212-486-430; Fax 212-486-7693
  • We urge respected public figures whose history includes an involuntary psychiatric treatment experience to step forward and point out the flaws in this overly sweeping amendment.

  • The following message was recommended by the New York Association of Psychosocial Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS):



    "Database Threatens Privacy, Could Lead to Discrimination," Bazelon Center

    NAMI Special Alert! Congress Links Guns to Mental Illness

    "Warnings Unheeded: County Was Unable to Monitor 'Violent' Patient Because He Could Not Be Found"

    "Federal Bill Orders States to Give Data for Gun Sales" 

    Senator Schumer's press release, July 30, 2002: New Bill Would Close Gun Law Holes That Led to Slaying of Priest
    Rep. McCarthy's press release (undated): Our Lady of Peace Unanimously Passes the U. S. House of Representatives
    NOTE: If you have difficulty finding any of the above references, we will be happy to mail the information to you. E-mail request to
  • November 24, 2002 - News of the Week


    "Armed and Dangerous" (CBS 60 Minutes) Must Not Air Again, Ever!

    At least for now, mental health advocates can celebrate the Senate's failure to vote on S. 2826 (the "Our Lady of Peace Act"). This sweeping amendment, attached to an obsolete gun law, would have added millions of law-abiding citizens to a federal criminal database. Especially regressive is the term "mental defective," a relic of both the American eugenics movement and the Nazis' horrifying application of that concept.

    But what will happen when the new Senate convenes in January? Will the news media play a role? (The House passed the problematic bill just days after "60 MINUTES" aired "Armed and Dangerous," an inflammatory misrepresentation of people with mental illnesses.)

    This brings us to a larger question: What can we do to head off media misrepresentation? With the mental health community's vast numbers, shouldn't we be more effective in achieving fair, accurate, and inclusive representation?

    "Fair, Accurate and Inclusive Representation" is a phrase we lifted from the website of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Like most other stereotyped minorities, the gay and lesbian community gives top priority to how they are represented in the media. We suggest that mental health organizations and activists visit GLAAD's outstanding website. Click Here.

    At the other end of the anti-defamation spectrum is the mental health community. Arguably, the constituency's highest-visibility spokesperson is Dr. E. Fuller Torrey of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC). For a decade TAC has emphasized and exaggerated the dangerousness of people with mental illnesses. This group bases its activism, it is said, on the principle that the public will fund what it fears. So far, TAC's "fear" results have been good; their "funding" results poor.


  • Tell "60 MINUTES" that any rebroadcast of "Armed and Dangerous" will be considered a deliberate act of malicious harm. This advance notice will be useful in case of future legal action. (A letter is preferable to E-mail.)

    Contact Information for CBS News

    Write: Don Hewitt, Executive Producer
    "60 MINUTES"
    524 West 57th Street
    New York, NY 10019

    Send cc's to Andrew Heyward, President CBS News; and Jeffrey Fager, Producer "60 Minutes II" (same address as Hewitt)

    E-mail: Address your message to Don Hewitt's attention.

    Possible message: Armed and Dangerous" (aired Oct. 13, 2002) contains misinformation damaging to people with serious mental illnesses. Any future rebroadcast would be a deliberate act of malicious harm.

    Keep copies of your mail, or better still, e-mail copies to us at or send to National Stigma Clearinghouse, 245 Eighth Ave #213, NYC, NY 10011.

  • Let your Senators hear your views on the gun bill if you haven't already done so -- or even if you have. The message: the bill criminalizes law-abiding people. Contact Information: Go to GOOGLE Enter a search for "Senate Members."

  • If you belong to a national mental health organization, urge the expansion of anti-defamation work. Most important, urge your leaders to refute made-up statistics and over-emphasis on violence.


    Flawed Bill May Still Threaten
  • March 23, 2003 - News of the Week


    "Mental Illness" Used in Marketing Strategy for Legislation Affecting Mainly Felons, Domestic Abusers, and Criminals

    The proposed federal gun law amendment ("Our Lady of Peace Act") will fund and expand a national background checklist of individuals forbidden to buy firearms, including people who have been hospitalized for a mental illness. The amendment passed the House of Respresentatives in October 2002. After the 107th Senate adjourned without voting on the act, the 108th Senate has included it in a vast security bill (S.22). (See below for LINK and background.)

    The "Our Lady" act is now part of a massive Senate bill (S.22) titled "Justice Enhancement and Domestic Security Act of 2003" and appears under the heading "Part 5, Disarming Felons."

    However, Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) may reintroduce OLOPA by itself.

    It is interesting to note that the "Our Lady" act had been floundering before October 13. Then 60 Minutes broadcast "Armed and Dangerous," an inflammatory segment incorrectly linking the Washington area snipers to severe mental illness.

    Three days after 60 Minutes host Steve Croft reported that the bill had been "gutted in committee," it passed the House with an informal vote and no discussion.

    Advocates have urged the authors of the flawed amendment to add safeguards to the Senate version. Nonetheless, the concept of stopping crime by casting a wide net over innocent individuals is abhorrent.

    There are ways to lower the astronomical number of gun fatalities without criminalizing people who never have and never will commit a serious crime. For example, the N.A.A.C.P. faults the gun industry for allowing violent people to have easy access to firearms. The N.A.A.C.P. has brought a lawsuit (see below) against the gun industry for their laxity in permitting guns to be channeled to criminals.

    The "Our Lady" amendment stigmatizes people with mental illnesses by wrongly presuming they present a high risk of violence. "Armed and Dangerous" reinforced this belief with misinformation. In contrast, the N.A.A.C.P. lawsuit seeks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. If Congress is serious about reducing the toll of gun deaths, this strategy might work.

    As we noted in October and November, the 60 Minutes rush to judgment was blatantly irresponsible. CBS has not redressed the damage done. 1) CBS broadcast misinformation that almost certainly influenced the passage of a flawed amendment; 2) CBS has failed to publicly admit it was wrong to presume that the Washington serial killer was mentally ill; 3) CBS has previously aired biased and inaccurate reports concerning violence and mental illnesses on numerous occasions.

    The criminalizing "Our Lady" act is likely to pass without any revision unless we press hard for changes.
  • Let the bill's sponsors know your views.

    U. S. Senator Charles E. Schumer - New York
    313 Hart Senate Office Building
    Washington, DC 20510
    Tel: 202-224-6542; Fax 202-228-3027
    District Office: 757 Third Avenue, Suite 17-02
    New York, NY 10017
    Tel: 212-486-4430; Fax 212-486-7693
    (click "contact" and fill out webform)

    U. S. Senator Larry Craig - Idaho
    U. S. Senate
    Washington, DC 20510-1203
    Tel: 202-224-2752; Fax: 202-228-1067
    E-mail: (click "Idaho office locater" then "contact me")

    To reach the House bill's author:
    U. S. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy
    1224 Longworth House Office Building
    Washington, DC 20515
    Tel: 202-225-5516; Fax 202-225-5757
    District Office: 1 Fulton Avenue, Suite 30
    Hempstead, NY 11550
    Tel: 516-489-7066; Fax 516-489-7283  
  • Let your Senators hear your views on the gun bill even if you have already done so. The message: the bill criminalizes law-abiding people.

    Contact Information: To locate senators go to GOOGLE Enter a search for "Senate Members"
    or, Enter your Senators' names.
    Justice Enhancement and Domestic Security Act of 2003 For "Our Lady" section: Enter S.22; scroll down to TITLE V Combating Drug and Gun Violence. Scroll to Subtitle B - Disarming Felons., Part 1, Our Lady of Peace Act.

    "Trying Again to Make Gun Makers Liable for Shootings," by William Glaberson, NY Times

    For info about 1968 gun law and Brady Bill Click here. Enter GOOGLE search for "1968 gun law"
  • March 30, 2003 - News of the Week

    More on "OUR LADY OF PEACE ACT" (OLOPA) --


    The Proposed "Our Lady" Act (OLOPA) Reinforces Flaws in Brady Act Noted by Paul Appelbaum, John Monahan, and Ray Lewis

    Paul Appelbaum, the current president of the American Psychiatric Association; John Monahan, director of the MacArthur Research Network on Mental Health and the Law; and Ray Lewis, a psychiatrist in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, all voiced concern in 1994 about the Brady Act, a then newly-enacted federal law to control gun violence. In particular, they criticized the inclusion of individuals with mental illnesses on a federal data base under consideration at the time. We now know this data base as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

    Lewis put his objections in a letter to Psychiatric News: "It would seem we are losing the battle against stigma! ... There is simply no sensible excuse for lumping people with a history of mental illness with dangerous criminals, and even less for registering them in a data base whose accessibility to the general public would be almost impossible to control."

    In a Boston Globe opinion piece (4/29/94), "Brady Bill's False Step," Paul Appelbaum and John Monahan wrote: " A centralized database that allows the police -- and their friends -- to find out who has been committed for treatment for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric conditions is a privacy nightmare. ... For the rare people with serious mental illness who may commit violent acts with guns, putting meaningful mental health benefits in health care reform is a much more promising prophylactic measure. ... Targeting gun control legislation on people with mental illness, thereby threatening to deter many of them from seeking needed treatment, is not an effective way to protect the public."

    The National Stigma Clearinghouse published and circulated the Lewis letter and the Appelbaum/Monahan opinion piece in its 1994 reports to media monitors (discontinued after 1996). For copies, e-mail Be sure to include a mailing address.

  • Let the bill's sponsors know your views.

    U. S. Senator Charles E. Schumer - New York
    313 Hart Senate Office Building
    Washington, DC 20510
    Tel: 202-224-6542; Fax 202-228-3027
    District Office: 757 Third Avenue, Suite 17-02
    New York, NY 10017
    Tel: 212-486-4430; Fax 212-486-7693
    (click "contact" and fill out webform)

    U. S. Senator Larry Craig - Idaho
    U. S. Senate
    Washington, DC 20510-1203
    Tel: 202-224-2752; Fax: 202-228-1067
    E-mail: (click "Idaho office locater" then "contact me")
  • June 29, 2003 -News of the Week

    aka NICS Improvement Act (NICS- National Instant Criminal-background Check System)

    Was Rebroadcast of "Armed and Dangerous" Intended to Sway Vote in Senate?
    On June 29, 60 MINUTES rebroadcast "Armed and Dangerous," a model of biased and misrepresentative "news" reporting. The segment concerned a proposed federal gun law amendment, the Our Lady of Peace Act (OLOPA), that would add millions of law-abiding citizens to a criminal database kept by the FBI for checking the backgrounds of gun purchasers. According to the Bazelon Center, the amendment is slated for introduction in the U.S. Senate soon.
    "Armed and Dangerous" first aired on 60 MINUTES on October 13, 2002.  Three days later the U.S. House of Representatives passed the OLOPA amendment without any discussion or even a formal vote.  Will the repeat airing of "Armed and Dangerous" trigger a similar rush in the U.S. Senate?
    According to 60 MINUTES host Steve Croft, the amendment applies to 2.7 million people who have experienced an involuntary psychiatric commitment and thus are prohibited from owning guns.  The names of these innocent people would be added to a federal criminal data base, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  By skipping or downplaying important facts, "Armed and Dangerous" implied that people with mental illnesses are a serious threat to American safety.
    Croft neglected to say that since its creation in 1998, the NICS has had poor data for all prohibited groups, including violent convicted criminals.  So while the NICS lacks information on many millions of criminals and violent offenders convicted of crimes, 60 MINUTES chose to ignore the bigger issues and focus on five high-profile murders, only two of them possibly relevant to the proposed law. The result: an inflammatory scapegoating of an innocent group of people.
    We should mention that according to comments in 1994 by leading experts on privacy, John Monahan and Dr. Paul Appelbaum, names and medical records on the database will be impossible to shield from misuse.
    The bill's lack of protection of private records is unacceptable. Further analysis of recent changes in the wording may reveal other problems.

    Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) is the leading sponsor of the "Our Lady of Peace Act" or "NICS Improvement Act." We suggest you urge Senator Schumer NOT to introduce the flawed bill in its present form.
    Tel: 202-224-6542; Fax: 202-228-3027  (Washington, DC)
    Tel: 212-486-4430; Fax: 212-486-7693  (New York, NY)
    Electronic Contact: 

    Senator Leahy of Vermont is another key sponsor. Contact info: Tel 202-224-4242; e-mail

    July 6, 2003 - News of the Week


    ***Please use this information to supplement "60 MINUTES Plugs a Flawed Gunlaw Amendment," News of the Week, June 29

    The less we know about a topic, the more likely we are to accept what we hear from a trusted source. Since many of us trust 60 MINUTES to be responsible, we accept its news and views. That is, until a blatantly biased segment addresses a subject we know well.

    "Biased" is far too mild a word for "Armed and Dangerous," an egregiously stigmatizing and inaccurate segment that aired on October 13, 2002 and again on June 29, 2003.

    "Armed and Dangerous" concerns a federal gunlaw amendment (to the National Instant Criminal-background Check System, NICS) now making its way through the U.S. Congress. At no time was the 60 MINUTES audience informed that vast numbers of people convicted of felonies and domestic abuse misdemeanors are missing from the NICS database. The decision to focus only on people with psychiatric diagnoses was possibly based on the much-publicized images that choice would provide.

    Beyond the bias, the segment is riddled with factual errors and misrepresentation. We cite here ten of them in the order they appeared in the segment.

    1) Steve Croft's Introductory Statement
    Steve Croft's opening words, "Why is it so hard to stop deranged gunmen from terrorizing American communities, like the sniper who has terrorized Maryland?" assumed that the sniper murders in Maryland were the work of a mentally ill gunman. This irresponsible assumption was first made on October 13 before the snipers' identities were known. Inexplicably, the line was repeated on June 29 when it was known to be false.

    Furthermore, the assertion that deranged gunmen are terrorizing American communities is false, irresponsible, and damaging to the mental health community.

    2) An Unsubstantiated Homicide Statistic
    Croft stated in his introduction that every year across the U.S., nearly 1,000 homicides are commited by people with severe mental illnesses. 60 MINUTES had used this figure in an earlier report, ignoring the objections of advocates who pointed out that the figure is unsubstantiated. And although advocates again pointed out the error after the October 13 broadcast, it was not deleted from the re-broadcast on June 29. The 1,000 figure is a guesstimate by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist known for exaggerating violence to win support for forced psychiatric medication. Furthermore, if the figure could be verified, it would show that people with serious mental illnesses commit homicide at the same rate or lower than the population at large.

    3) Biased Description
    Michael McDermott was described as a "rampage murderer" who acquired his weapons because of the incomplete database. While this statement may have some validity, McDermott was not the threatening monster 60 MINUTES portrayed. He had held responsible jobs throughout his adult life and had not shown threatening behavior in the past. He had been treated for depression and hospitalized several times, but news reports disagree whether he had ever been involuntarily commited. Interestingly, the defense lawyer testified that McDermott had tripled his dosage of Prozac several weeks prior to the murders, which he said might explain "the level of rage and anger that allowed the killings to occur." Prozac has been a suggested cause of agitation, psychosis, rage, and violence in some individuals.

    4) Misleading Footage of the Hinckley Assassination Attempt
    To show the emotional footage of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagon by John Hinckley was gratuitous and misleading. Although the concept of the federal database was spurred by John Hinckley's murder attempt, the datatbase would not have listed his name and others like him who have no record of involuntary psychiatric care.

    5) Biased Description
    The description of Russell Weston, who killed two guards in the Capitol Building on July 24, 1998, skipped any mention of the fragmented help he had received for his delusional problems. Although for several years, local mental health agencies, the FBI, and even the Secret Service knew about Weston's threatening behavior and need for psychiatric help, he was irresponsibly dumped and abandoned. This is a prime example of official buck-passing, where mental health care consists of a bus ticket to another state. While it is possible that Weston's name on the database would have prevented the Capitol tragedy, it is spurious to ignore the surrounding story.

    6) Crucial Fact Omitted
    In describing the case of Peter Troy, who commited a double murder in Long Island, NY on March 12, 2002, 60 MINUTES failed to note the importance of the restraining order issued to protect Troy's mother. The restraining order was a reasonable cause to prohibit Troy's gun purchase, while his involuntary hospitalization does not prove violent tendencies. Interestingly, the Troy case illustrates the role of inadequate funding for mental health services. Although the system knew Troy's history of violence, his case was closed due to dire mental health staff shortages .

    7) Misleading and Inaccurate
    Colin Ferguson, who killed six people including Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's husband and wounded 19 others including her son on a Long Island commuter train on December 7, 1993, was inaccurately described as an "insane gunman who went berserk." There was no indication of insanity or psychiatric illness prior to Ferguson's rampage. Ferguson's name would not have been on the federal database, and he would not have been stopped from buying his gun. In fact, he purchased his weapon in California in strict compliance with the tough gun laws of that state and dutifully completed the two-week waiting period. The family members of the shooting victims, including Rep. McCarthy, told the New York Times in 1995 that although at first they thought Ferguson had to be insane, they later changed their minds after learning more about him.

    8) Misrepresentation of People Involuntarily Commited to Psychiatric Care
    After Michael Faenza of the National Mental Health Association said, "If you want to be serious about handguns, targeting people with mental illness is not the place to start," Steve Croft replied, "It seems like the perfect place to start if you know that somebody is psychotic and delusional and may not know the diffrence between right and wrong." Here Croft sweepingly discredits people who have experienced an involuntary commitment during their lives as psychotic, delusional, and untrustworthy. Misinformation such as this is deeply damaging because it sounds plausible to an audience with little knowledge about mental illnesses.

    9) Conditions That Present Greater Violence Risk Were Ignored
    The audience was not informed about groups at far higher risk of commiting violence than people with psychiatric disabilities.

    10) One Example of a Responsible Person
    One person with schizophrenia who had received an exemption from the gun prohibition was interviewed near the end of "Armed and Dangerous." The flagrant imbalance of this "news" piece requires an explanation.

    To recap the examples used to justify the gunlaw amendment: Colin Ferguson and John Hinckley would not have appeared on the NICS (gun purchase prohibition) list since their conditions did not warrant it until after their crimes. Peter Troy's restraining order disqualified his gun purchase; 60 MINUTES ignored that important point. We concede that if Russell Weston's and Michael McDermott's names had been on the NICS list, they may have been denied gun permits. However, McDermott used an AK-47 type assault rifle which he must have acquired without a permit. Let's not forget that Senator Schumer published a study showing that illegally acquired firearms are the real menace to public safety.

    Where does this leave 60 MINUTES' record for honesty?

    September 4, 2003 - Special Posting by Antistigma Home Page


    Bill Would Add 2.7 Million Non-criminals to Criminal Database

    "IT'S A TERRIFYING THOUGHT! Right now, right here in New York, 3,000 people who've been involuntarily committed to mental institutions can go buy a gun when they get out! " WCBS-TV, News at 5, Sept. 2
    These words kicked off a publicity campaign by U. S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, who hopes to amend the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) in the current Senate session.

    The Schumer Bill (aka "Our Lady of Peace Act" and "NICS Improvement Act") would help states to automate their records of people prohibited from purchasing guns. Currently, according to the Bill, 25 states have automated less than 60 percent of their felony criminal convictions records.

    Oddly, the Schumer campaign has ignored the missing data on convicted criminals, focusing intead on law-abiding people with mental illnesses.

    Schumer's appearance on the WCBS newscast followed several days of promos for the 5-minute feature. Here's a sample:
    "Guns in the hands of the mentally ill is a loophole in the law putting your life at risk!"

    Fear-mongering is an effective way to get laws passed. But how honest was the WCBS piece?

    1) The inclusion of the John Hinckley and Colin Ferguson cases had nothing to do with the proposed law. Neither man had a record of criminal violence or psychiatric hospitalization prior to their violent acts. The proposed law would not have prevented either man from buying a gun.

    2) The description of Peter Troy who killed a priest and a parishioner on Long Island last year was relatively factual. But it was Troy's lawbreaking acts of domestic violence that would have put him on the NICS database. His record of involuntary hospitalization should be irrelevant to his name appearing on the list.

    3) Senator Schumer, in his comments, assumed that an episode of involuntary commitment proves a person's violence and lasting mental incompetence. This alarming false assumption appeared repeatedly throughout the program.

    4) NAMI's Ron Honberg, a critic of the flawed amendment, got only about 10 seconds of airtime.

    5) Questionable statistics: We question the 3,000 figure said to be the number of NY residents to be added to the NICS list. By contrast, a 2.7 million figure was given for the nation. What is the authority for these numbers?

    6) These 2.7 million involuntarily-committed people are non-criminals whose only "crime" is having a mental illness. What are the figures for the missing data on convicted criminals and domestic abusers? The number must be far higher.

    7) Perhaps most disturbing was Schumer's decision to dwell on mental illness (and briefly, domestic violence) and ignore other more glaring gaps in the NICS database. Such skewed emphasis wrongly implied that people with mental illnesses are threats to public safety.

    The bill would give $375 million to states to update their criminal record-keeping technology. But should this be the nation's highest priority when essential mental health programs are falling under the budget axe? And in a 1999 investigation, Schumer himself found that most gun crimes are committed with illegally purchased guns that are easy for anyone to buy.

    Leading experts have called the law a "privacy nightmare" for law-abiding non-violent people with mental health needs because their names will be on a criminal database used by police departments throughout the nation.

    Our requests for information from Schumer's offices have been ignored. As of today, the Bill's flaws have not been corrected.

    Alert your U.S. Senator that the Schumer Bill must be put on hold pending consultation with key mental health advocates.

  • To reach your Senator, go to Google Search and enter "Senate Members"

  • It would help to contact the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Use the Google Search and enter "Senate Judiciary Committee." FYI, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts are key people on the committee.

  • To E-mail Senator Charles E. Schumer, go to Click "contact" and fill out the webform.
    Fax: 202-228-3027
    Tel: 202-224-6542
  • September 28, 2003 - News of the Week


    What "Protections" Have Been Added?

    Let Your U. S. Senators Hear From You

    On Friday, the New York Times reported (article below) that a gunlaw amendment to beef up the list of felons, illegal immigrants, and others on a federal criminal database is moving rapidly toward approval by Congress.

    Unlike reports that dwell disproportionately on the mental health records missing from the database, the Times refers only briefly to that small fraction of the problem.

    According to the Times, privacy safeguards in the legislation will protect the people on the list. Does anyone know what these safeguards may be? We suggest that advocates try to find out by contacting the national headquarters of their mental health organizations or the offices of Senator Charles Schumer (Tel: 202-224-6542, Fax: 202-228-3027. Schumer's NYC office may be more reachable: Tel 212-486-4430).

    ARTICLE: The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2003 (copyright 2003)

    Bipartisan Agreement Is Reached on Gun Bill in Congress

    WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 — In an unlikely alliance of politicians often at odds on gun issues, leading Republicans and Democrats in Congress announced a deal today on legislation that would provide more than $1.1 billion to help prevent felons, illegal immigrants and others from buying guns.

    The legislation appears headed for passage in both houses of Congress, a rare achievement in the hot-button area of gun legislation. Backers said the measure, if passed, would represent the most significant gun safety initiative to be approved by Congress in seven years.

    The measure is supported by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who at first blush appear to be "strange bedfellows," acknowledged Representative John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who has been an ardent foe of past gun control bills.

    But in a rare area of agreement, gun rights backers like Mr. Dingell and gun control advocates believe that the F.B.I.'s system for conducting background checks on some seven million would-be gun buyers each year is badly broken.

    Gun groups complain that despite recent improvements in the process of checks, it still takes too long for many purchases to be approved. And gun control groups assert that thousands of felons, spouse abusers, illegal immigrants, people with a history of mental illness and others banned by federal law from buying guns continue to slip through the cracks.

    The proposal announced today seeks to repair the system by providing state agencies and courts with $375 million a year for the next three years to upgrade their databases on criminals and other types of banned people. It would also penalize states that fail to meet certain performance markers by cutting their federal grant money.

    The aim, said Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho, was to create "an effective, accurate, speedy background check" and to keep guns from people who are prohibited from owning them.
    Mr. Craig, a board member of the National Rifle Association, and Mr. Dingell, a past board member, have sparred with gun control advocates like Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representative Carolyn McCarthy, both Democrats of New York. Mr. Craig and Mr. Schumer, for instance, remain on opposite sides of the current debate over bills protecting gun makers from legal liability and reauthorizing a ban on certain types of assault weapons.

    But all four lawmakers appeared at a news conference today to support the background-check legislation. And by securing the backing of Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the influential Utah Republican, backers predicted swift passage by both houses of Congress.

    Mr. Hatch helped to stall similar legislation in the Senate last year after it had passed the House, but he has now pledged his support after stiffer penalties were included as a "stick" against states that fail to upgrade their databases.

    Even the N.R.A., which has worked to derail many past gun control measures, said today that it supported the plan.

    "We think this is a step in the right direction," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the N.R.A., "and with Larry Craig and John Dingell as co-sponsors, we're confident that this legislation will help bring about the promise of an instant gun check for Americans."

    Some mental health advocates have objected to the proposal because they said it could further stigmatize the mentally ill and violate their privacy rights by putting more medical information into a national database. But backers said that they had been careful to include safeguards in the legislation that they believed would protect the privacy rights of the mentally ill while preventing them from buying guns.

    Backers said the measure, if approved, would represent the first substantial piece of federal gun legislation since at least 1996, when Congress expanded the list of banned gun buyers to include domestic abusers.

    "The significant thing about this legislation," said Jim Kessler, policy director for Americans for Gun Safety, which worked with lawmakers in developing the bill, "is that it explodes the myth that nothing can be achieved on guns in Congress."

    In a study last year, Mr. Kessler's group found that flawed record keeping had allowed nearly 10,000 people who fell into a banned category to pass background checks and buy guns in a 30-month period. The group gave failing grades to 22 states "for having grossly inadequate criminal, domestic violence and mental disability records."

    Antistigma Page Comments: 50% of Dealers Willing to Sell Handguns Illegally, Study Says (article by Eric Lichtblau,New York Times, June 17, 2003).  Abstract: "UCLA study finds that half of firearms dealers questioned in undercover survey are willing to allow buyers to make 'straw purchases' that could violate or sidestep federal law."

    October 19, 2003 - News of the Week


    For a textbook case of how to create prejudice and discrimination, look no further than the campaign to promote U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer's gunlaw amendment, the NICS Improvement Act of 2003. NICS is the National Instant Criminal-background Check System. Representative Carolyn McCarthy is the bill's chief sponsor in the House, where a version of the bill passed last year.

    The gunlaw amendment's purpose is a worthy one: keep guns out of the hands of violent people. But the method of selling the law to the public suggests deliberate exploitation by its sponsors.

    Senator Schumer and Rep. McCarthy must find a way to undo the damage they have done.

    In misrepresenting the bill's purpose with misplaced emphasis on mental illnesses, Schumer and McCarthy have maligned millions of law-abiding citizens who comprise only about 6% of the individuals whose names should be on the NICS national criminal database but are not.

    There has been a lack of outcry against this obvious and blatant distortion. Have decades of stigmatizing images dulled our outrage? Would any other stigmatized minority accept such callous exploitation by political figures?


    An estimated 38 million criminal records are missing from the NICS database. (Source: S. 1706, Sec.2, Findings)

    The following analysis is from the National Education Association. (Note: the mental health records are non-criminal.)

    Felony Records: The typical state has automated only 58% of its felony conviction records. The FBI estimates that 16 million to 39 million felony arrest records lack final disposition information.

    Drug Abusers: The General Accounting Office estimates than only 3% of the 14 million records of drug abusers are automated (not including felons and wanted fugitives). States have supplied only 97 of those records to NICS, which the GAO estimates as representing less than 0.1% of the total records of those with drug records that would deny them a firearm.

    Domestic Violence: 20 states lack a database for either domestic violence misdemeanors or temporary restraining orders or both. 42% of all NICS denials based on restraining orders come from one state - Kentucky - which does the best job of automating temporary restraining orders (TROs) from the bench. The Department of Justice estimates that nearly 2 million restraining order records are missing from the database.

    Mental Health: 33 states keep no mental health disqualifying records and no state supplies mental health disqualifying records to the NICS. The General Accounting Office estimates that 2.7 million mental illness records should be in the NICS databases, but less than 100,000 records are available (nearly all from VA mental hospitals). States have supplied on 41 mental health records to NICS. Combined with the federal records, the GAO estimates than only 8.6% of those disqualified from buying a firearm for mental health reasons are accessible on the NICS database.

    Note: Boldtype emphasis has been added

    The disparity in numbers raises ethical questions about the skewed publicity.

    And why have the bill's sponsors downplayed restraining orders in the Peter Troy case (the impetus for the bill)? These restraining orders were cause to deny his gun purchase (Group 3 above), and are a far better predictor of violence than his psychiatric hospitalization.

    Just as important is the fact that the first three groups listed above are individuals who have committed illegal offenses, whereas the members of the fourth group -- people with mental illnesses -- have not.


    For copies of the bills, Click here and enter NICS Improvement Act of 2003. (Bills are S 1706 and HR 3237)

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