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Originally published Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Bowling for gun sanity in South Carolina

Analysts seeking insight into the gun debate need look no further than South Carolina, writes Kathleen Parker. The only serious proposal there would strengthen background checks for mental illness.

Syndicated columnist

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – When President Obama said in his State of the Union address that “This time is different,” referring to his push for tighter gun-control laws, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie.

Analysts seeking insight into the gun debate need look no further than the land of cotton, where nothing is ever forgotten. In a matter of days, citizens and lawmakers on both sides of the gun issue have advanced laws to:

• Allow concealed weapons to be carried in bars and restaurants;

• Make it legal to purchase or own any weapon that could have been acquired legally at the end of 2012;

• Strengthen background checks to identify people with mental illness.

The latter is the most serious of the batch and follows a recent near-tragedy at Ashley Hall, a private girls’ school in Charleston where Barbara Bush, among other notables, was once a student. Several days ago, a woman with a long record of mental instability, including a 2005 court plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, brought a loaded semi-automatic pistol to the school and pulled the trigger several times while pointing the gun at a school administrator.

Fortunately, the gun never fired and Alice Boland, 28, was unable to complete her mission. What exactly that was isn’t easily discerned from her bond hearing rant, which covered a diverse collection of complaints:

“I wanted to make a political demonstration about problems in my life relating to the fact that racist feminists, including institutions like that where I was demonstrating ... have been causing me these alleged mental problems ever since I met a lesbian professor,” said Boland.

Check.

This was not Boland’s first visit to Ashley Hall, which is located near her psychologist’s office. Boland prompted a call to police two years ago when she reportedly was seen “harassing children and acting very suspicious,” according to a Charleston police officer. This time, she brought a Taurus PT-22 pistol she had purchased a few days earlier, despite a mental-health record that, in a rational world, would have blocked the sale.

The woman herself said she was crazy, yet she’s sane enough to buy a gun?

More than 50 Ashley Hall parents have signed a letter sent to a dozen state and federal officials urging action to prevent people such as Boland from acquiring firearms. Boland managed to answer questions on a federal questionnaire adequately to purchase the gun. And because she has no criminal record, her name wasn’t flagged during a routine background check.

Laws governing doctor-patient privacy prohibit disclosure of mental-health issues — as any who have sought psychological counseling would have it.

But Boland had another record that clearly should have disqualified her from gun ownership. Never mind an earlier diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. She also had faced federal charges for threatening to kill President George W. Bush and “the entire U.S. Congress.” Her plea of not guilty by reason of insanity inarguably should have placed her in a database of those ineligible to purchase firearms. But because her charges were dismissed in 2009, she had no criminal record.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking in Washington Wednesday, labeled the Ashley Hall case Exhibit A of a “broken system,” and has vowed to introduce legislation that would enhance the background check process to include “prior exposure to court and ... mental status.”

Meanwhile, state officials back home in Columbia were busy figuring out ways to skirt any new laws that might restrict gun ownership.

Citing an 1881 “unorganized militia” state law, state Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Greenville, proposed legislation guaranteeing everyone’s right to own any weapon that could be purchased legally as of Dec. 31, 2012. Corbin’s claim that federal law could not pre-empt South Carolina law, in addition to being incorrect — federal law trumps state law — was rather dramatically disproved during the unpleasantness of 1861-65.

In other action, a state Senate panel approved a bill to allow concealed weapons in restaurants and bars so long as the carriers don’t drink. Noting the volatility of mixing guns and alcohol, some suggested that business owners could post signs banning guns in their establishments. But one speaker called that “un-American.” Another insisted that he should be allowed to have a glass of wine with his lasagna while packing heat.

So it goes in the state that James L. Petigru, anti-secessionist and former South Carolina attorney general, long ago described as “too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum.”

It remains to be seen if this time is different.

© , Washington Post Writers Group

Kathleen Parker's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com


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