S.C. law kept guns from mentally ill


When Alice Boland was accused of threatening to kill the president of the United States in 2005, charges were dropped because she was found mentally incompetent and ordered to undergo treatment for schizophrenia, according to court records.

Eight years later, she pointed a .22-caliber pistol she'd bought a few days earlier in Walterboro at an administrator of a Charleston school, according to authorities.

Boland pulled the trigger but the gun didn't fire because she'd improperly loaded the ammunition, authorities said.

Since that day, more than 100 people have been stopped from buying guns after they had been found mentally incompetent by a court in South Carolina, according to State Law Enforcement Division officials.

Following the incident at Ashley Hall school in downtown Charleston in February 2013, state lawmakers passed a law that required state probate courts to report the names of all individuals adjudicated mentally ill in the past 10 years. They also were required to continue reporting new cases.

SLED has been collecting that data since the law's passage in 2013, which gave the state's courts until this month to submit its past decade's records.

Approximately 46,000 entries have been submitted by SLED to the FBI's national database, which is used to conduct background checks for gun purchases.

As a result of that new data entry, 136 firearms purchases in the state were blocked, according to SLED.

Another 21 out-of-state firearm purchases also were prevented and more than 100 concealed weapons permits were revoked.

S.C. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who sponsored and co-authored the law, said it was gratifying to hear so many people who shouldn't be buying guns were stopped.

"Who knows what any of those 136 people might have done?" he said.

Erin Dando, the head of the South Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, echoed his praise for the law's effectiveness,

"South Carolina's success in submitting mental health records into NICS (the federal database) should be a model to other states lagging behind," Dando said in an emailed statement.

The president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, a National Rifle Association state association, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Arlyn Pendergast, president of ATP Gunshop in Ladson, said about five to 10 buyers are turned down every week at his shop because of background checks, but he doesn't know if its because of a mental illness or some other reason.

"The FBI just says 'yes' or 'no,'?" he said.

The federal database used for background checks was launched by the FBI in 1998 and is used to identify people barred from buying firearms - the mentally ill, convicted felons, fugitives and domestic violence offenders.

However, the records of individuals deemed mentally incompetent by a court are not submitted to the database by every state. This included South Carolina until the state law passed last year.

The law was not intended to, nor would it stop, anyone from buying a gun who had exhibited signs of mental illness, but hadn't been found insane or committed by a court.

It's a point critics of gun laws have raised after mass killings, including the Sandy Hook school shooting and the attack in the theater in Aurora, Colo., both of which were commited by young men suffering from serious mental illness but who could legally buy weapons because they had never been found insane, according to authorities.

Boland, who remains in custody, pleaded not guilty to four federal charges in connection to the Feb. 4, 2013, incident outside the all-girls private school. Among the charges is illegal possession of a firearm because of her status as someone who had been deemed mentally incompetent. Her case is still pending in federal court, according to court records.

County probate courts in the state have been working the past year to submit their cases to SLED before the August deadline.

Charleston County submitted 6,800 records dating back to 2003 and continues sending records as new cases come up, according to Probate Judge Irvin Condon.

On average, Charleston County is sending SLED about 23 cases a week of individuals who are adjudicated to be mentally ill who are prevented from purchasing firearms, according to Condon.

Charleston County turned in the past 10 years of its records in November, months before the deadline.

Three clerks from Condon's office were assigned to researching and submitting the data to SLED.

Condon said it was important for them to set an example since the Ashley Hall incident, which sparked the legislation, occurred in their county.

"We wanted to make sure we were taking a lead on it," Condon said.

It wasn't as smooth sailing for other counties, according to Cherokee County's Probate Judge Joshua Queen.

Queen said his county and others experienced challenges collecting and submitting the data from the past decade.

"It was a tremendous amount of paperwork to go through," Queen said.

His office had to fax each record since they didn't have a computer technician to help send encrypted data by email to SLED, like Charleston County did. Queen, whose wife is a teacher and who has a child in school, said he never opposed the law requiring the data submission, but knew there would be logistical issues in complying before the deadline.

"This law struck a chord with me. I want to keep them safe," he said. "It was just an issue for us as far as getting it done in a timely manner."

However, Cherokee County submitted its records before the deadline, Queen said.

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594