Before he allegedly shot 13 people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Esteban Santiago showed up at an Alaska FBI office to complain that the government was controlling his mind. Yet a few weeks later, he was free to fly with a semiautomatic weapon and ammunition in his luggage.
That revelation has once again raised questions about laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Florida, somewhat surprisingly, has a law designed to keep guns away from seriously mentally ill people, but state statistics show the law is rarely used.
Under Florida law, a person who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution is prohibited from purchasing guns. In 2013, legislators also closed a loophole that had previously allowed those who voluntarily committed themselves to purchase a gun upon release.
Under the law change, which was supported by both the NRA and mental health advocates, people who agree to treatment after being deemed a danger to themselves or others are also added to the no-gun-buying list.
But data shows that very few gun purchases are denied due to mental health. Between January 10, 2015, and January 10 of this year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, 1,693 gun transactions were denied for the primary reason of a mental health disqualification. (In some cases, mental health can be listed as a secondary reason. Those cases are not included in this figure.)
In about the same timeframe, there were more than 1.9 million gun transactions. That means only about .09 percent of gun sales were denied because of a mental health disqualification.
(According to the National Institute of Mental Health, somewhere around 4.2 percent of all U.S. adults have a serious mental illness.)
Of course, the larger issue of mental health and gun ownership is as complicated as the motives behind Santiago's rampage that killed five people. As the Miami Herald reported last week, experts stress that the airport shooting is an outlier.
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“In general, people with mental illness are no more dangerous than the general public. If you’re on medication, you’re much less dangerous,” Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, who helped write the 2013 law, told the paper. “With firearms, as it pertains to people with mental illness, it usually results in suicide, not homicide.”
Despite federal law that bars gun ownership by a person committed to a mental institution or adjudicated mentally defective, Santiago's four days of psychiatric treatment were not court-ordered or long enough to count as a commitment, the Herald reported. When he was released, he was given back his gun, which authorities had seized after his visit to the FBI office.
In Florida, gun purchases have risen steadily, though denials have remained about the same, according to the Tampa Bay Times. There were 1,037,483 transactions reported last year, compared to 391,340 in 2006. In the first ten days of this year, there have already been 19,220 transactions reported.