ATLANTA - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urged state officials throughout the nation Thursday to be more active in protecting the public against people with mental illness, from those who should not have guns to those convicted of sexual offenses.
He said Thursday that all states should be sharing their mental-health files with a federal gun-registration database to keep weapons out of the hands of people such as the shooter at Virginia Tech who killed 27 students and five faculty members in April. Speaking to a meeting of the nation's state attorneys general, Mr. Gonzales urged them to participate in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System - known as "NICS."
Georgia is one of only 23 states that participate. Others have been reluctant because of privacy concerns and costs, he said.
Still, Mr. Gonzales stressed the importance of stopping gun purchases by people who are legally barred from owning them.
"For NICS to be effective, it's got to be timely. It's got to be accurate. It has to be complete," he said. "This is one way we can do a better job ensuring that people who should not have firearms, like the individual who did the Blacksburg (Va.) shootings, do not get access to firearms," he said.
Mr. Gonzales also called for ideas on how to protect the public from convicted sex offenders.
"But if they really can't be cured, or we can't successfully treat them, do we keep them locked up for the remainder of their lives?" he said. "I think there needs to be discussion about this issue. I think dialogue about this issue as well.
"What are the long-term plans for dealing with sex offenders?"
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, the president of the National Association of Attorneys General, which is meeting this week, said he can't say whether sex offenders can be rehabilitated, but he committed his organization to coming up with ideas.
As it happens, Mr. Baker has been defending Georgia's recent law - one of the toughest in the nation - which prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, church, playground or other area where children might congregate, including bus stops. Several legal challenges are pending that question its constitutionality.
"We've got to see where the litigation goes ... I believe these laws are reasonable and constitutional until a court says otherwise," Mr. Baker said.
Mental-health experts, though, say Mr. Gonzales is overreacting. Sex offenders are less likely to repeat their crime than other criminals, only about 13 percent within the first five years, said James Stark, a former president of the Georgia Psychological Association.
"The whole country is in a predator panic. They've gone crazy," said Dr. Stark, who treats sexual disorders at the Marietta and Ellijay clinics of Psychological Forensic Associates. "There are very few sex offenders who are actually dangerous," he said.
Most of the 13,000 people on Georgia's registry of sex offenders are there for flashing, being a peeping Tom or having consensual sex with an underage girlfriend, Dr. Stark said.
On the other hand, 90 percent of the victims of violent sexual crimes were accosted by family members or friends, he said, rather than someone cruising a playground or schoolyard.
Georgia's sex-offender law has drawn the national spotlight over the case of a man who was 17 in 2003 when he had consensual oral sex with a girl who was 15. Genarlow Wilson wound up with a mandatory 10-year sentence even though legislators have since changed the law to make exceptions for what they termed "Romeo and Juliet" circumstances.
Last week, a state judge dismissed Mr. Wilson's sentence, but Mr. Baker immediately appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court to prevent the release of others convicted under the same law for nonconsensual molestation.
Mr. Baker told reporters he was trying to get Mr. Wilson and the local prosecutor in the case to agree to a plea bargain.
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