It wasn’t a “big “story. In fact, the article published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last June received little follow-up and even less attention. That’s unfortunate – because it’s a story that explains the anxiety so many Americans express about both Obama’s Affordable Care Act and even “reasonable” gun controls.
More about that in a minute.
The not so big story was about a Butler Pennsylvania resident, one Jeffrey L Burtner, suing the Pennsylvania State Police in federal district court. Mr. Burtner sued to force the state police to correct their records erroneously showing he was involuntarily committed to a state mental institution.
Under state law anyone adjudicated as a “mental defective” or involuntarily committed cannot possess a gun. On this basis, the state police relied on their “instant check system” to deny Mr. Burtner the right to buy a new hunting rifle. Their system showed that he had been committed in 1992.
Now this is where it gets interesting. Mr. Burtner asserted he has never been committed to a mental institution and he immediately challenged the “mental defective” designation.
He approached both the hospital and the provider cited as the sources of the state police report. They both indicated they had no such records that he had been committed. Mr. Burtner’s attorney forwarded this exculpatory evidence to the state police, expecting perhaps they would do something sensible with it.
So far so good. Mistakes happen, no one is perfect, and all’s well that ends well.
Not quite! This is where it gets positively Orwellian.
The state police through their legal office acknowledged they possessed no evidence of Mr. Burtner’s involuntary commitment, stating: “the PSP has been unable to find any involuntary commitment documentation on Mr. Burtner …”
Understand what is happening because what comes next is stunning.
Here, apparently, is a law-abiding Pennsylvanian, attempting to exercise his second amendment rights to buy a new hunting rifle. He reportedly had bought other guns before. Lawfully and willingly, he submits to the required background check, alleges damaging misinformation in the government’s data bases, hires an attorney to help him gather corrective information, and submits that information to the state police.
Upon receipt of that information the state police acknowledge they have no information to the contrary. In other words, they acknowledge they have no basis to deny the purchase or rely on the disputed information about Mr. Burtner.
So the state police corrected their records, apologized to Mr. Burtner for the embarrassment and inconvenience (to say nothing of the costs he had incurred) and approved his original application to purchase a hunting rifle.
That’s certainly what should have happened!
But what actually happened provokes outrage. Upon acknowledging they had no evidence that he had ever been committed, the state police told Mr. Burtner that to get the incorrect information removed from the government data base, he “… would have to take legal action for the PSP to remove it from PICS (the instant background check).”
He was compelled to go to federal court and ask for a declaration so that he can exercise a constitutional right, while requiring the state police to expunge its records — records the state police have already acknowledged are unsupported by any facts.
Happily for Mr. Burtner the whole farce finally ended in November when the state finally agreed to settle the lawsuit, pay him $400, and allow him to purchase a gun.
What is wrong with this picture?
For starters, it’s preposterous that a citizen must go into federal court to force a state agency to correct their own records when those records are preventing him from exercising a constitutional right.
But the injustice imposed on Mr. Burtner, however unpleasant his experience, pales against the corrosive erosion to confidence in government that even such small incidents provoke. Mr. Burtner’s ordeal also explains what is so inexplicable to gun control advocates – why millions of Americans still resist or are indifferent to reasonable gun control measures. And it helps to explain why almost two thirds of Americans now oppose the Affordable Health Care Act.
Opposition to these programs do not arise because most Americans’ oppose either sensible gun control or workable health insurance. Opposition arises because we don’t trust our governments to administer these programs with competence and common sense. It’s not the laws most oppose; it’s the government that incompetently administers them.
That is the elephant in the room amid the gun debate and health insurance – and indeed many of the controversies of our time. We increasingly don’t trust government to get it right.
Americans fear that Mr. Burtner’s story will become their story – that if gun laws are strengthened or health insurance expanded, government will screw it up. We have lost trust in government and Mr. Burtner’s story and others like it exacerbate those feelings.
Somehow, Americans’ must come to believe again that government will do the right thing and the smart thing most of the time. We must come again to believe that government can do its job. Until that happens we will make little progress with guns or health insurance or any of the pressing challenges confronting us today.
Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.