WHAT IS THE MENTAL HEALTH RECORD GAP? We learned in the tragic wake of the Virginia Tech shooting rampage that there are big gaps in the background check system that have allowed mentally unstable people to walk into a gun store and come out with a gun.
- Current federal law prohibits people from possessing guns if they have been:
- Involuntarily committed to a mental institution; or
- Found to be a danger to themselves or others, or to lack the ability to manage their own affairs, due to mental illness.
- The National Instant Criminal Background Check System
(NICS) database lists people who are prohibited possessors on these or other
grounds. Federally licensed gun dealers must check a buyer in NICS before
selling them a gun.
- Although NICS is run by the FBI, it relies heavily on states' voluntarily supplying many of the relevant records.
- Under current law, states may report relevant data
to NICS but are not required to do so.
- Federal legislation passed in January with support of Mayors Against Illegal Guns provides states financial incentives to provide more data to NICS, but it does not make data-sharing mandatory.
EXAMPLES OF THE MENTAL HEALTH RECORD GAP:
- Example 1: Lack of records - NICS' database of mentally ill people has less than 20% of the records it should:
- A 1991 report for Congress estimated that 2.7
million people had been involuntarily committed.
- But according to the most recent Justice Department
figures only 402,000 people are in NICS on this basis, according to press
accounts citing the FBI.
- Also, DOJ reports that 18 states have not provided any mental health data.
- Example 2: Virginia Tech shooting rampage - The murderer was a prohibited person, but he was able to buy guns because he was not listed in NICS:
- A Virginia court had declared that Cho Seung-Hui
was a danger to himself due to mental illness.
- Under federal law, this made him a prohibited
possessor and he could have been added to NICS.
- Virginia did not, however, forward information
about him and may other persons with similar mental health records.
- He bought two guns from licensed dealers, passing a
NICS check each time, and used them to kill 32 students and faculty as well
- Virginia's governor later issued an executive order to report cases like Cho's.
STATE AND LOCAL RESPONSES:
- Overview: According to a
Justice Department, 32 states had submitted some data to NICS' mental health
file as of November 2007 - though many of these stats have so far only
submitted a handful of records. In all, even though a 1991 report for Congress
estimated that 2.7 million people had been involuntarily committed, only
400,000 people are in NICS on this basis, according to press accounts this
year citing the FBI.
- Connecticut: Statute requiring state agencies to share data with NICS:
- The Departments of Public Safety and Mental Health
and the state judiciary must report federally prohibited possessors to the
- Each agency must sign a memorandum of understanding with the FBI that reflects state and federal privacy law.
- Illinois: Similar in
effects to Connecticut's law, it goes into effect this June.
- Colorado: Statute requiring courts to report to NICS:
- Each court clerk must report "periodically" to
- The statute lists the sorts of commitments that must be reported, including those for treatment of alcoholism, drug abuse, and other mental health problems. It also includes people put under guardianship based on inability to care for themselves.
This is a selected list of initiatives that members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns are pursuing in their cities. Please note that the programs and ideas listed on this page have not been formally endorsed by the coalition. Mayors Against Illegal Guns understands that what works in one city or town might not work in another - but mayors in this coalition have an interest in learning from each other, and these items are presented as starting points for those conversations.