Why Did Stephen Colbert Suggest That The NRA Opposes Mental Health Checks?

While discussing the issue of gun control with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, comedian/talk show host Stephen Colbert made the false claim that the National Rifle Association is “opposed to mental health checks.”


His exact misleading-statement-in-the-form-of-a-question was, “And if mental health checks are opposed by the NRA, how do you fight back?”

You can catch it at 1:30 in the video below.

As my colleague Katie Pavlich notes, Colbert’s suggestion that the NRA is opposed to keeping mentally ill people from acquiring guns is entirely false. The National rifles Association has been working with legislators since 1966 to help try to keep the dangerously mentally ill from acquiring firearms.

The problems we have in keeping criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from acquiring firearms is three-fold.

Poor Reporting

Background checks are conducted by running the personally identifying information of individuals through several databases. Unfortunately, databases are not omnipotent, nor perfect. They are only as good as the data entered into them by human beings.

Many states and localities are not uploading data in a full and timely manner. Most will cite budgets (they don’t have the equipment/staff/hours) as the reason for not keeping records up to date for disqualifying criminal and/or mental health records.

Poor Followup

The suspect who hoped to trigger a race war by murdering nine at Emanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, SC was able to carry out his attack because of a double system failure.


The first failure came as when information from drug arrest was not entered into the system (see “poor reporting,” above). His admission that he was illicitly in possession of prescription drugs should have disqualified him as a prohibited person when his NICS background check was run, but that important data point was not entered into the system to flag him, enabling him to pick up his gun when he returned to the gun store five days later.

Once it was discovered that he was a prohibited person, the second failure occurred.

The NICS Operation Center had a duty to report that a gun had been picked up by a prohibited person to the ATF, who would then assign local agents to carry out a retrieval operation. It takes less than 24 hours from reporting to retrieval in many instances. Unfortunately, the ball was dropped somewhere between NICS and the responsible ATF field office. Instead of having the gun picked up and the suspect arrested, he was able to maintain possession of the firearm for more than 60 days before carrying out the massacre.

Opposition from Mental Health Advocates, Civil Rights Groups

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to keeping the violently mentally ill from acquiring weapons and carrying out attacks is the simple fact that we have a shortage of in-patient long-term mental health care treatment options in this nations.


As a culture, we decided over the past 40 or so years that the severely mentally ill should not be warehoused in long-term mental heath facilities, and not without reason. Many of these facilities were underfunded and understaffed, and the quality of life for those interred was miserable, criminal, and inhumane. A push was made to attempt to reintegrate the mentally ill into society and treat them on an outpatient basis was instituted, in order to treat these people with compassion.

Unfortunately, it seems that the good intentions of mental health care reforms went too far. We now have too few doctors, too few beds, and too little money dedicated towards both diagnosis and treatment of those who have severe mental health problems. Sadly, many of these people will take their own lives. Others will attack other human beings.

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We also have the very real problem that many people with violent tendencies have not been diagnosed, and they excel at disguising these tendencies until the day they explode. The man who recently murdered two journalists in Roanoke, Virginia,  and the man who shot up the Washington Navy Yard, both passed extensive state background checks strengthened in Virginia after the Virginia Tech Massacre.


How do we separate the truly dangerous from the benign?

The simple, hard answer is that we really can’t. Human beings are clever. They find ways around obstacles. It’s what we do as a species.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have been looking to find ways to strike the balance between safety and liberty for decades, and it is a constant quest.

For demogogues like Stephen Colbert to suggest that the NRA opposes such matters is duplicitous, and I suspect, intentional.

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