Law Professor On Arizona Gun Laws

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The alleged gunman in Saturday's shooting rampage in Arizona that killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords bought the gun legally last November from a local store. Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of Arizona, discusses gun laws in the state.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

While many questions remain about the shootings in Tucson, there are also a number of hard facts. The gun used by Jared Loughner was a Glock 19, nine millimeter handgun, a semi-automatic. He was using an extended clip, that's a larger than normal magazine that holds 31 bullets.

Loughner bought the gun legally last November from a local store, part of the chain called Sportsman's Warehouse. Managers at the store say Loughner passed an FBI background check. Even so, there are questions about the gun and how he got it.

And so we're joined now by Gabriel Chin. He's a professor of law at the University of Arizona, and he studies policy on firearms.

Welcome to the program.

Professor GABRIEL CHIN (College of Law, University of Arizona): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, I'm just curious. What are they looking for specifically in that background check?

Prof. CHIN: They're looking for criminal record and they're also looking for significant mental health history. And also other things that make a person ineligible to own a firearm: If you have a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, if you are an undocumented person, if you are a habitual user or addicted to unlawful drugs, then you can't get a firearm.

NORRIS: In the case of Jared Loughner, he had been arrested before for possession of drug paraphernalia, but the charge was dismissed. And so I want to make sure I understand this correctly. An arrest itself does not keep someone from getting a gun; it's the conviction that matters.

Prof. CHIN: Well, there are certain kinds of arrests, certain kinds of things other than convictions that can prevent you from getting a firearm: If you're indicted for a felony, if you have a protective order against you that's based on a domestic violence incident. But for the most part, you have to have an actual conviction.

So for example, if a person is charged with armed robbery and murder, but the charges don't result in a conviction, then after the charges are dismissed, they can get a firearm.

NORRIS: Now, another reason that people are not able to pass background checks is if they've been adjudicated to be, as the law says, mentally defective. Again here, Loughner clearly showed some signs of mental instability, but that's not something the courts weighed in about.

Prof. CHIN: That's right. You have to actually be committed to a mental institution or to be adjudicated mentally ill in a proceeding, for example, that maybe will put somebody else in charge of your assets or making decisions for your property and your person. But simply being mentally ill does not prevent you, under Arizona law or federal law, from getting a firearm.

NORRIS: We do know that Loughner had been asked to leave the Pima Community College because they were concerned about his mental stability and the thought that he might pose a threat. Something like that wouldn't count as a strike against him in a background check.

Prof. CHIN: It really wouldn't, because they're not doing a real careful background check. They're just sort of screening for some very serious objective indicators, like a criminal conviction, like you've actually been sent to a mental institution. It's not like a security clearance, let's say, where they're really investigating the details of your relationships and your employment situation and your education situation.

If you've been kicked out of school for plagiarism, for example, that might prevent you from getting a security clearance. But it has nothing to do with your ability to get a firearm.

NORRIS: And in Arizona, carrying these so-called extended clips, that is legal.

Prof. CHIN: Yes. Yes. So from about 1994 to 2004, there was a federal assault weapons law. And one part of that is that it prohibited the manufacture of new magazines of more than 10 rounds in federal jurisdiction, that is within interstate commerce.

That bill expired, and a number of other states and cities imposed their own prohibitions on high capacity magazines. But Arizona is one of those jurisdictions that has absolutely no limit on the number of bullets that can be contained in a magazine.

NORRIS: How would you rank Arizona's gun laws?

Prof. CHIN: I think it's fairly clear that they're among the most lenient in the United States. There are every year, there's legislation to make them even more lenient, more permissive. And it's a state where the idea is that everyone who is an adult and a citizen or a lawful permanent resident is entitled to carry guns and own firearms, that our law in Arizona treats it as a normal, regular part of life.

NORRIS: Professor Chin, thank you very much.

Prof. CHIN: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: I've been speaking with Gabriel Chin. He's a professor of law at the University of Arizona, and he studies policy on firearms.

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