David Frum

04.29.13

The Lives a Background Check Could Save

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Why do we need stricter background checks? A story from Oregon shows how the present rules invite terrible tragedies:

The woman at the counter of Keith's Sporting Goods wanted a handgun. She wasn't interested in price, quality or how to use it safely. She spoke slowly that day in June as she made one request: Would the clerk load it?

Maria Ward doesn't judge her customers. Americans have a right to buy firearms, after all. But this woman seemed traumatized. Ward worried she planned to hurt someone.

"I'm sorry," Ward told her. "I'm not going to sell you a firearm."

Ward, who owns the Gresham gun store with her husband, then did something she'd never done before. She warned the Oregon State Police not to allow anyone else to sell Brenda Nyhof Dunn a gun. But the agency, which performs background checks for most gun sales in Oregon, told Ward there was nothing it could do under the law.

The next day, Nyhof Dunn drove to Dick's Sporting Goods in Gresham. She bought a rifle and ammunition, according to the police report, which included a receipt from the transaction. She paid $10 to have the Oregon State Police perform a background check, which she easily passed. Hours later, she fatally shot herself. She was 36.

Oh well, so sad, but how could anybody have known, right? Wrong.

No restrictions apply to people like Nyhof Dunn, whose battles with bipolar disorder and major depression drove her to voluntarily enter residential psychiatric care 13 times in the final year of her life. The month she died, Multnomah County sheriff's deputies visited her home after she told a 9-1-1 operator she planned to hang herself in her parents' barn.

Thirteen hospitalizations for bipolar disorder and depression in a 12-month span - and still allowed to buy a gun. That's the law as it stands now. Does it make any sense?