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Gun violence policy is focusing on mental health but Federal records still lack some states

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Federal officials say the FBI’s database of people banned from buying firearms will only work if it contains “complete, accurate and timely information.”

Mental health records are an important part of the system. But three states — New Hampshire, Montana and Wyoming — are still refusing to file them.

As U.S. senators smooth over gun reform initiatives, many Republicans, such as Texas Senator John Cornyn, have repeatedly pointed to legislation that prevents people with criminal records or mental health problems from obtaining firearms.

Cornyn supported a 2018 bill that seeks to bolster the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, in the wake of a shooting at a Texas church that left 27 people dead. Among the fatalities was the gunman, an Air Force pilot whose criminal record that would have prevented him from purchasing weapons was not filed with NICS.

“For years, agencies and states have failed to obey the law and upload this critical data without consequences,” Cornyn said as he celebrated the “Fix NICS” solutions that pushed for faster and more accurate submissions. “Just one record not reported correctly can lead to tragedy.”

President Donald Trump signed that bill, which has pumped $615 million into states to close loopholes and bolster reporting in the FBI system.

States have made significant progress reporting on the database of 26 million records, including for 6.9 million people classified as mentally ill by a judge.

With no state laws requiring participation, Montana and Wyoming have filed 36 and 17 mental health files, respectively. New Hampshire has filed 657. By comparison, Hawaii — which has about the same population as New Hampshire — has filed nearly 10,000 mental health records.

Data from the government-run mental health facilities of the three states shows that many hundreds more have been involuntarily detained — all of which should have been submitted to NICS.

History of this program

The National Background Checking System was established as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. Gun shops, pawnshops and other licensed dealers across the country are required to use it whenever someone wants to buy a firearm.

Potential gun buyers are required to fill out a form from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives that confirms certain questions, after which their names are run through the FBI system.

The FBI says more than 300 million checks have been made over time, leading to more than 2 million denials.

Holes in the mental health reporting system drew attention in 2007 after 32 people were killed in a Virginia Tech shooting. Two years earlier, a court had found the student shooter “an imminent danger to himself or others” after he was accused of stalking two female classmates, resulting in temporary detention that should have disqualified him from purchasing firearms.

At the time, only about half of the states reported their mental health records to NICS. By 2012, that number had dwindled to about 19 states reporting fewer than 100 records, and by 2014 it had fallen to eight. In 2016, it dropped to four until Alaska increased its reporting.

“We know that a background check is only as good as the data it contains, so efforts to improve data reporting to NICS are critical to public safety,” said Kelly Drane, director of research at Giffords Law Center, a group for the prevention of gun violence. “Research has shown that as states improve reporting of banning mental health events in the background check system, we see a decreased risk of arrest for violent crimes for individuals who are banned.”

The “Fix NICS” bill, written by Cornyn and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, was called a “baby step” by gun control proponents, but has received support from both major gun lobbies, the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation continues to lobby in New Hampshire, Montana and Wyoming to tighten its coverage.

“We make every effort to ensure that the background check system represents the most accurate data available,” said Mark Oliva, the foundation’s spokesperson.

Strange bedfellows continue

Attempts to extend background checks to “universal” — applicable to private sales — have failed at both the state and federal levels. But gun rights lobbyists and gun security groups have both united to strengthen NICS.

The opposition to this has created some “strange bedfellows,” said Susan Stearns, executive director of the New Hampshire branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Stearns’ group opposed a measure to report mental illness to NICS in 2017, largely because there was no way to get off the list.

The alliance’s “position has always been: If they are a danger to themselves or others, they should be prevented from accessing lethal resources, period,” Stearns said. “But you can’t lose constitutional rights for the rest of your life.”

Stearns said people in mental health crisis often recover but may be permanently prevented from participating in shooting sports and hunting.

New Hampshire officials are filing court files for anyone deemed incompetent to face charges or not guilty of insanity, but not those involuntarily committed to a health center.

The alliance was also lukewarm over a bill from former Democratic state Sen. Margie MacDonald in Montana, even though her bill included an option to be removed from the list after five years.

MacDonald tried in 2014 and again in 2019 to pass a bill that required the records to be filed. Ultimately, she said the Republican opposition, fueled by hardline gun rights groups in the state, has scuttled her efforts.

“It’s discouraging, discouraging and very dangerous,” she said.

MacDonald hosted a Virginia Tech victim’s father for a 2014 hearing in Helena, Montana. The mother of a woman who was murdered in 2008 by a man who bought a firearm just days after she was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital also testified. He had lied on the ATF form and answered “no” if he had ever been found mentally ill.

Lying on the form can lead to fines and up to 10 years in prison.

Data released by the Department of Justice to the Washington Post shows that cases related to form lying are extraordinarily rare: 243 in fiscal year 2020, out of millions of checks.

In Wyoming, former Representative Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, sponsored a 2019 effort to mandate NICS mental health reporting, which also failed. She said she had to deal with “top class misinformation” from groups like the Wyoming Gun Owners, backed by the Dorr Brothers.

Burlingame said Wyoming’s ranking as the worst place for suicides per capita is reason enough to keep firearms away from people in crisis.

“This is tied to older white males, isolated and with access to firearms,” ​​Burlingame said. “If that doesn’t inspire people to create a culture that upholds our cultural right to firearms and moral obligations, then I don’t know what does.

“It’s common sense legislation that every other state has understood.”


Reporting Mental Health Records to the National Firearms Control System Lowers Suicide Rates


(c)2022 USA today
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Quote: Gun violence policies target mental health, but federal data still missing in some states (June 2022, June 17) retrieved June 17, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-gun-violence-policy -focusing-mental .html

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