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Western Psych gunman bought guns despite troubles

| Saturday, March 31, 2012

After he tangled with police and was committed to a mental health facility in Oregon in 2010, John F. Shick should not have been able to buy a gun in America under federal law.

But an Albuquerque, N.M., man told investigators he sold two 9 millimeter handguns with no background check to a man resembling Shick when Shick responded to a newspaper ad in April 2011, Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki said on Friday.

Private sales without background checks are legal under New Mexico law. Shick tried to buy a handgun in Oregon in January 2011 and was denied after a background check.

Pittsburgh police believe Shick used the handguns to fatally shoot therapist Michael Schaab, 25, of Regent Square and wound five others at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic on March 8.

"This situation is an example of a person who clearly had dangerous tendencies -- he already had been flagged by law enforcement -- but he was still able to gain access to firearms because our laws are such a patchwork," said Max Nacheman, director of CeaseFirePA, a gun violence prevention group. "There are very few barriers to a person who is determined to get a firearm."

Unlike Pennsylvania, which requires background checks in private handgun sales, neither Oregon nor New Mexico requires an individual selling a gun to another person to run a background check or keep records of the sale.

"Obviously, an upstanding person should make sure the gun is not falling in the wrong hands," said Lt. Robert McDonald of the New Mexico state police.

Investigators are trying to learn more about the gun purchase in New Mexico and to learn if Shick "... was living there, if he was traveling through or visiting, or went specifically to purchase a firearm," Stangrecki said.

Background checks should be conducted in gun sales, and private sellers should be able to do them instead of having to go to federally licensed gun dealers, which are authorized to conduct the checks, said Kim Stolfer, chairman of Firearms Owners Against Crime.

"I think it's an inadequate effort to make them (private sellers) go to a gun dealer when the average individual should be able to do it as well," Stolfer said.

Shick was committed in Oregon in January 2010 after his arrest for fighting with police at Portland International Airport. His mother told investigators in Pittsburgh that he was diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia and that she thought he had stopped taking his medication.

According to federal law, anyone committed to a mental institution is barred from owning a gun. But not every state submits commitment information to the national database that gun dealers and police use for background checks.

"There are certain people prohibited from owning firearms, but there is no way to enforce that law if you're not going to conduct a background check and if that background check system isn't populated with all the applicable data," Nacheman said.

Oregon began submitting its commitment records to the national data pool in December. Pennsylvania does not submit the information nationally; state police have said legal issues are holding up the process. Stolfer said he believes Pennsylvania should submit those records.

"It may be the first time in my life I ever agreed with the anti-gun groups," Stolfer said. "Above and beyond any other entity, gun owners don't want bad guys to get guns."

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