After Virginia Tech

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

AWAVE of recent school shootings, including the bloody attack in Illinois last week, is again prompting calls around the country for reforms. But in Virginia, where the bloodiest rampage of all took place last spring at Virginia Tech, the initial demands for legislative and regulatory improvements have yielded disappointing results. Other states that have grappled with senseless killings can now look to Richmond as an example -- one not to emulate -- of minimal response to maximum trauma.

The General Assembly's first failure was to leave open an outrageous loophole in state law that enables anyone, including ex-cons, escaped felons and those suffering from severe mental illnesses, to purchase firearms from private dealers at gun shows without undergoing a background check of any kind.

Never mind that most such checks in Virginia take a few minutes at most. That was still too much for the gun lobby, which called in its many chits in Richmond to kill legislation that would have closed the loophole. Virginia lawmakers not only left open the door for a potentially dangerous person to buy a weapon, they also thumbed their noses at many of the Virginia Tech victims' families, who had urged that the loophole be closed.

Legislators then turned their attention to the state's laws governing involuntary commitment, which are among the most restrictive in the nation. Some lawmakers had paid lip service to relaxing the commitment standard so that sick individuals who do not necessarily pose an "imminent danger" to themselves or others could be detained for treatment. Other states have adopted more flexible standards under which people can be detained who are likely to become dangerous if not treated, or whose condition is rapidly deteriorating, or who are incapable of making rational decisions about their treatment. The effect of those reforms is to provide treatment to people before they are in extreme crisis -- in other words, before it may be too late.

Rather than adopting one of those reforms, however, Virginia lawmakers seem likely to make what amounts to little more than a cosmetic change in the standard for involuntary commitment. In keeping with a modest recommendation by the state Chief Justice's Commission on Mental Health Reform, legislation now heading toward enactment would still bar detention unless there were a "substantial likelihood" that an individual would hurt himself or others in the near future. Other reforms, legislative and regulatory, go a little further toward tightening up the mental health system to ensure that sick people get the help they need as patients, and that background checks for weapons purchases -- when they are done -- screen out mental health patients. But the standard for involuntary commitment is the heart of the matter. And Virginia has flunked the test.

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